OSH, Kyrgyzstan — U.N. officials charged Tuesday that organized gangs of masked fighters launched a series of co-ordinated attacks last week that sparked the wave of ethnic fighting in Kyrgyzstan. According to the Red Cross, the rampages, arsons and murders have killed several hundred people.
The southern part of Kyrgyzstan has been convulsed by days of rioting targeting minority Uzbeks, which has left the country’s second-largest city, Osh, in smouldering ruins and sent over 100,000 Uzbeks fleeing for their lives to neighbouring Uzbekistan.
Overwhelmed by the deluge, Uzbekistan closed the border Tuesday, leaving thousands of frightened refugees camped out on the Kyrgyz side or stranded behind barbed-wire fences in a no-man’s land.
As the United States, Russia and the United Nations flew in humanitarian supplies, the leader of country’s interim government pressed Moscow again to send in troops to quell the violence.
The International Committee of the Red Cross had no precise figure of the dead, but spokesman Christian Cardon said “we are talking about several hundreds.”
Kyrgyzstan’s interim President Roza Otunbayeva also acknowledged Tuesday the real death toll likely was “several times higher” than official count of 179 people killed, because many victims were buried by their relatives the same day in keeping with the Muslim tradition. Nearly 1,900 have been were injured, the Health Ministry said.
Otunbayeva said she also talked again with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev about sending in troops, a move Moscow had refused over the weekend. Both the U.S. and Moscow have air bases in the strategically located nation, but they are in the north, far from the rioting.
Otunbayeva’s government, which took over when former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted in an April uprising, has accused Bakiyev’s family of instigating the violence to halt a June 27 referendum on a new constitution. Ethnic Uzbeks have mostly backed the interim government, while many Kyrgyz in the south have supported Bakiyev.
From self-imposed exile in Belarus, Bakiyev has denied any ties to the violence, but Otunbayeva insisted Tuesday that his supporters had stoked the conflict.
“Many instigators have been detained and they are giving evidence on Bakiyev’s involvement in the events. No one has doubts that he is involved,” she said.
Rupert Colville, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, told reporters in Geneva there was evidence the violence was co-ordinated and began with five simultaneous attacks in Osh by men wearing ski masks. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay also said the fighting “appears to be orchestrated, targeted and well-planned” and urged authorities to act before it spread further.
Militants from neighbouring Tajikistan drove around Osh in vehicles with tinted windows shooting both Uzbeks and Kyrgyz last week to spark the violence, Kyrgyz deputy security chief Kubat Baibolov said.
“They were employed by people close to the Bakiyev family who have been expelled from power,” Baibolov said. He gave no further details, but added that some of the Tajik militants had been detained and testified about their role in the unrest.
The government said earlier that suspects from Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan were detained and told authorities they were hired by Bakiyev supporters to start the rioting.
Bakiyev’s younger son, Maxim, was arrested Monday in Britain, Kyrgyz security chief Kenishbek Duishebayev said. Prosecutors allege that companies Maxim Bakiyev owned avoided almost $80 million in taxes on aviation fuel sold to suppliers of the U.S. air base near the capital of Bishkek.
Bakiyev’s regime faced widespread allegations of corruption and his family members grew wealthy and power while he was president from 2005 to April this year.
The region around Osh is also known as a key hub for drugs flowing out of Afghanistan, and thus a hotbed for gangs and guns.
The United Nations and the European Union, meanwhile, urged Kyrgyzstan not to let the violence derail a June 27 constitutional referendum and parliamentary elections scheduled for October.
“The referendum and the elections must be held at the announced times” so Kyrgyzstan moves further toward democracy, U.N. representative Miroslav Jenca said in the capital, Bishkek. The EU backs this position, according to Germany’s ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, Holger Green.
Yet the scale of the damage was so vast in the south it was hard to see how a legitimate vote could be held in less than two weeks. Up to 200,000 people have fled violence within Kyrgyzstan just since Thursday, UN refugee agency spokesman Andrej Mahecic said in Geneva.
An AP photographer in the southern town of Nariman, near Osh, saw 10 buses and trucks filled with Uzbek refugees heading toward the border Tuesday in just 10 minutes.
At a Nariman hospital, dozens of wounded Uzbeks lay in corridors and broken beds. Many at the hospital, which lacked medical supplies, claimed the rampages had been premeditated.
“Well-armed people who were obviously well prepared for this conflict were shooting at us,” said Teymurat Yuldashev, 26, who had bullet wounds in his arm and chest of different calibre. “They were organized, with weapons, militants and snipers. They simply destroyed us.”
Deadly rampages in the country’s south began late Thursday, as mobs of ethnic Kyrgyz torched homes and businesses of ethnic Uzbeks. Many sections of Osh, a city of 250,000, were burned to the ground and the rampages spread into surrounding towns and villages.
Tens of thousands of Uzbeks are now in 30 different refugee camps in Uzbekistan, including several camps around the eastern city of Andijan.
Several thousand refugees waited in squalid conditions Tuesday near one border crossing on the Kyrgyz side near Osh, with more people arriving by the hour. Heavy rainstorms overnight soaked makeshift tents made from carpets, and the air resounded with the sounds of crying women and children.
“There is no humanitarian assistance, no water, this is worse than living like an animal,” said Fedya Okramov, 21, one of 10 family members who had taken refuge under a tree.
The ICRC said Uzbekistan was overwhelmed by the number of refugees. Earlier, Uzbekistan had said it had processed over 45,000 refugees, and an Uzbek leader said over 80,000 had made it across the border. But it was not clear Tuesday when or if the border would reopen.
Clashes continued in and around Osh on Tuesday. Interior Ministry troops patrolled Jalal-Abad, a major city about 45 miles (70 kilometres) from Osh, but city spokeswoman Klaya Tapkeyeva said region was still not safe.