OSH, KYRGYSTAN // Sporadic gunfire continued through the night and fresh fires raged in southern Kyrgyzstan today, as the deadliest ethnic violence to hit the Central Asian nation for decades forced thousands to flee and showed no signs of abating. The official death toll reached 117 with 1,500 hurt, the health ministry announced early today. Accounts from international aid agencies and other witnesses suggest the real figures could be much higher. The International Committee of the Red Cross has said its delegates witnessed about 100 bodies being buried in one cemetery alone.
In days of attacks, mobs of rioters killed ethnic minority Uzbeks and burned their homes and businesses. More than 75,000 Uzbeks fled the country in fear of attacks that appeared aimed at undermining the government. The interim government, which took over after Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted by a public revolt in April, has been unable to stop the violence and accused Mr Bakiyev's family of instigating it. Uzbeks have backed the interim government, while many Kyrgyz in the south have supported the toppled president.
Today, new fires raged across Osh, the country's second-largest city on the border with Uzbekistan, where food and water were becoming scarce. Armed looters smashed stores, stealing everything from televisions to food. In the mainly Uzbek district of Aravanskoe, an area formerly brimming with shops and restaurants, entire streets have been burned to the ground. Despite military patrols, sporadic gunfire could be heard across the city. It was unclear who was shooting.
No police could be seen on the streets, though authorities insisted some of the improvised checkpoints dotted around the city of 250,000 were theirs. Cars stolen from ethnic Uzbeks raced around the city, most crowded with young Kyrgyz wielding sharpened sticks, axes and metal rods. In some parts of Osh, Kyrgyz residents protected homes housing both Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. In another city beset by violence, Jalal-Abad, about 40 kilometres away, armed Kyrgyz amassed at the central square. Their goal was to travel to the nearby Uzbek settlement of Suzak in search of an Uzbek community leader they blame for starting the trouble.
As the clashes continued, desperately needed aid began trickling into the south. Several planes arrived at Osh airport loaded with tons of urgently needed medical supplies from the World Health Organization. Trucks carried the supplies into the city centre accompanied by tank and trailed by an armoured personnel carrier. Flights were cancelled to Osh and Jalal-Abad, though at least one regularly scheduled flight landed in the city, carrying acting deputy prime minister Omurbek Tekebayev.
The Uzbek border is just 5 kms from Osh. Uzbek refugees were mostly elderly people, women and children, with younger men staying behind to defend their property. Some were fired on as they fled. The US, Russia and the UN chief all expressed alarm about the scale of the violence and discussed how to help the refugees. The US and Russia both have military bases in northern Kyrgyzstan, away from the rioting. Russia sent in an extra battalion to protect its air base.
The US Manas air base in Bishkek is a crucial supply hub for the coalition fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Manas was working with the US state department and interim government to help deliver food and medical supplies, said Air Force Major John A Elolf, a spokesman at the base. Uzbeks make up 15 per cent of Kygryzstan's five million people, but in the south their numbers rival ethnic Kyrgyz. The fertile Ferghana Valley where Osh and Jalal-Abad are located once belonged to a single feudal lord, but it was split by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin among Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, rekindling old rivalries.
From his self-imposed exile in Belarus, Bakiyev denied any role in the violence and blamed interim authorities for failing to protect the people. Interim president Roza Otunbayeva's government had hoped to seal its political and democratic credentials in a referendum to approve a new constitution on June 27, but the likelihood of that vote taking place now looks slim. * AP