BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — Kyrgyz mobs burned Uzbek villages and slaughtered their residents Sunday in the worst ethnic rioting this Central Asian nation has seen in 20 years, sending more than 75,000 Uzbeks fleeing across the border into Uzbekistan.
Most of the Uzbek refugees were elderly people, women and children, and many had gunshot wounds, the Uzbek Emergencies Ministry said in a statement carried by Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency. It said refugee camps were being set up for them in several areas of Uzbekistan.
Fires set by rioters have destroyed most of Osh, the second-largest city in Kyrgyzstan, and food was scarce after widespread looting. Triumphant crowds of Kyrgyz men took control of Osh on Sunday as the few Uzbeks still left in the city of 250,000 barricaded themselves in their neighbourhoods. Fires continued to rage across Osh and shots were heard but police were nowhere to be seen.
The rioting has significant political overtones. Former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted in a bloody uprising in April and fled the country. Uzbeks have backed Kyrgyzstan’s interim government, while many Kyrgyz in the south support the toppled president.
Interim President Roza Otunbayeva blamed Bakiyev’s family for instigating the unrest, saying it aimed to derail a June 27 constitutional referendum and new elections scheduled for October. A local official in the south said Bakiyev supporters had attacked both Kyrgyz and Uzbeks to ignite the rioting.
From his self-imposed exile in Belarus, Bakiyev denied any role in the violence and blamed interim authorities for failing to protect the people.
The interim government has ordered troops to shoot rioters dead but even that failed to stop the spiraling violence that has left more than 100 people dead and over 1,250 wounded since Thursday night. Doctors say that toll is far too low because wounded minority Uzbeks are too afraid of being attacked again to go to hospitals.
The rampages spread quickly Sunday to Jalal-Abad, another major southern city, and its neighbouring villages, as mobs methodically set Uzbek houses, stores and cafes on fire. The rioters seized an armoured vehicle and automatic weapons at a local military unit and attacked police stations around the region trying to get more firearms.
Police and the military appeared to be on the defensive across the south, avoiding clashes with mobs.