The number of dead from ethnic rioting in Kyrgyzstan “should be multiplied several times” from the official toll of 176, said interim President Roza Otunbayeva, as tens of thousands of people fled to neighboring Uzbekistan and thousands more remained trapped Tuesday after that border was closed.
Although the violence appeared to subside Tuesday, Otunbayeva said she was negotiating with Russian leaders to deploy Russian troops to the conflict zone in the country’s south because the Kyrgyz army and police are unable to maintain order. Moscow had denied a request over the weekend, but it did order tons of humanitarian relief supplies to be airlifted to the region Tuesday.
No one knows for sure what sparked the violence, but United Nations officials say the weekend rampage of arson and shootings by mobs of ethnic Kyrgyz setting fire to homes and businesses of ethnic Uzbeks apparently began when organized gangs of masked gunmen launched five simulta- neous attacks across Osh, leaving the country’s second-largest city in smoldering ruins and prompting a flood of refugees.
At least 1,800 people were injured in Osh and in violence elsewhere, and many of the dead were buried immediately in accordance with Muslim tradition and thus not included in official estimates, Otunbayeva said.
The large number of refugees fleeing the south of Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan finally forced the Uzbek government to shut the border. Uzbek officials told the RIA Novosti news agency that at least 83,000 people -- mostly women and children, some injured -- had crossed over and are spread out among 30 refugee camps.
As thousands more arrived at the closed border, heavy rainstorms soaked makeshift tents made from carpets, and the air resounded with the sobs of women and children.
“I was there with two little children for two days, sleeping on the floor in one house with 70 other refugees,” said Nargiza Amirzayeva, 28, a former resident of Osh stranded at the border. “We have no water, no food and humanitarian aid is not reaching us.”
Amirzayeva said in a phone interview from the village of Suratash that she was afraid to return to Osh, where “they killed our men in cold blood and then put gasoline over them and burned them.”
“My cousin’s husband was killed in Osh two days ago,” she said. “They surrounded him in the street and shot him three times.”
Otunbayeva’s government, which took power after 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. Many Kyrgyz in the south have supported Bakiyev.
Bakiyev, in self-imposed exile in Belarus, has denied any involvement.
The interim government has asked Belarus for the former president’s extradition. Belarus rejected the request, but Kyrgyz officials said his son, Maxim, had been detained in Britain.
U.N. officials have urged Kyrgyzstan to ensure that violence does not spread to other parts of ex-Soviet Central Asia, a vast Muslim region north of Afghanistan and Iran.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said it had seen signs of ethnic cleansing in Kyrgyzstan.
“The most difficult thing will be to return the refugees,” said Sergei Abashin, senior researcher at the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology in Moscow. “Yes, they are Uzbeks, but they are residents of Kyrgyzstan … so there is no way but to bring them back. Uzbekistan won’t be able to accommodate all of them forever.”
Dmitry Karpov, 25, a satellite telephone company engineer in Osh, said few people were on the streets a day after the riots stopped.
“You won’t see a single Uzbek face, only Kyrgyz and Russians,” Karpov said in a phone interview from Osh. “The only shops that survived the pillaging and burning have the word ‘Kyrgyz’ painted on them, but even they are still closed.
“I don’t believe Uzbeks can return soon to this place,” he said. “Even if they do, they will return with a vengeance because they will never forget or forgive the massacre.”
Loiko is a Times staff writer.
Times wire services were used in compiling this report.