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Russia says won't send troops to Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan granted shoot-to-kill powers to its security forces and appealed for Russia's help to stop ethnic fighting, but the Kremlin refused to send troops.
Image: Ethnic Uzbeks gather near the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border in southern Kyrgyzstan, on Saturday
Ethnic Uzbeks gather near the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border in southern Kyrgyzstan on Saturday. Thousands fled to the border in panic as ethnic violence rose to the nation's highest level since the former president was toppled in April.D. Dalton Bennett / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Ethnic riots wracked southern Kyrgyzstan on Saturday, forcing thousands of Uzbeks to flee as their homes were torched by roving mobs of Kyrgyz men. The interim government begged Russia for troops to stop the violence, but the Kremlin offered only humanitarian assistance.

At least 77 people were reported killed and more than 1,000 wounded in the violence spreading across the impoverished Central Asian nation that hosts U.S. and Russian air bases.

Much of its second-largest city, Osh, was on fire Saturday and the sky overhead was black with smoke. Roving mobs of young Kyrgyz men armed with firearms and metal bars marched on minority Uzbek neighborhoods and set homes on fire, forcing thousands of Uzbeks to flee. Stores were looted and the city was running out of food.

Kyrgyzstan's third straight day of rioting also engulfed another major southern city, Jalal-Abad, where a rampaging mob burned a university, besieged a police station and seized an armored vehicle and other weapons from a local military unit.

"It's a real war," said local political leader Omurbek Suvanaliyev. "Everything is burning, and bodies are lying on the streets."

Those driven from their homes rushed toward the border with Uzbekistan, and an Associated Press reporter there saw the bodies of children trampled to death in the panicky stampede. Crowds of frightened women and children made flimsy bridges out of planks and ladders to cross the ditches marking the border.

Interim President Roza Otunbayeva acknowledged that her government has lost control over Osh, a city of 250,000, even though it sent troops, armor and helicopters to quell the riots. Violence spread to the nearby city of Jalal-Abad later Saturday.

"The situation in the Osh region has spun out of control," Otunbayeva told reporters. "Attempts to establish a dialogue have failed, and fighting and rampages are continuing. We need outside forces to quell confrontation."

Otunbayeva asked Russia early Saturday to send in troops, but the Kremlin said it would not meddle into what it described as Kyrgyzstan's internal conflict.

"It's a domestic conflict, and Russia now doesn't see conditions for taking part in its settlement," Kremlin spokeswoman Natalya Timakova said in Moscow. She added that Russia will discuss with other members of a security pact of ex-Soviet nations about the possibility of sending a joint peacekeeping force to Kyrgyzstan.

Timakova said Russia would send a plane to Kyrgyzstan to deliver humanitarian supplies and help evacuate victims of the violence.

Russia has about 500 troops at a base in Kyrgyzstan, mostly air force personnel. The United States has the Manas air base in the capital, Bishkek, a crucial supply hub for the coalition fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Kyrgyzstan's interim government spokesman, Farid Niyazov, refused to say whether the country would turn to the U.S. for military help after Russia had refused. "Russia is our main strategic partner," he said.

In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said he was unaware of any requests for help by Kyrgyzstan.

Rampaging mob
The riots are the worst violence since former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was toppled in a bloody uprising in April and fled the country. The violence is a crucial test of the interim government's ability to control the country, hold a June 27 vote on a new constitution and go ahead with new parliamentary elections scheduled for October.

Otunbayeva on Saturday blamed Bakiyev's family for instigating the unrest in Osh, saying they aimed to derail the constitutional referendum.

Maksat Zheinbekov, the acting mayor of Jalal-Abad, said in a telephone interview that Bakiyev's supporters in his home region started the riots by attacking both Uzbek and Kyrgyz. The rampaging mob quickly grew in size from several hundred to thousands, and automatic gunfire rang over the city, he said.

Ethnic tensions have long simmered in the Ferghana Valley, split by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's whimsically carved borders among Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

In 1990, hundreds of people were killed in a violent land dispute between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Osh, and only the quick deployment of Soviet troops quelled the fighting. Both ethnic groups are predominantly Sunni Muslim.

Moscow has competed with Washington for influence in strategically placed Central Asia and pushed for the withdrawal of the U.S. base in Kyrgyzstan. But the Kremlin's refusal to send troops indicated that it's much more reluctant to get involved in the turbulent region's affairs than its assertive policy statements had suggested.

The official casualty toll Saturday rose to at least 77 people dead and 1,024 wounded, the Health Ministry said. The real figures may be much higher, because doctors and human rights workers said ethnic Uzbeks were too afraid to seek hospital treatment.

Witnesses said that many bodies were lying in the streets of Osh and more were scattered inside the burned buildings. As Uzbek refugees, mostly women and children, fled the city toward the border, they were shot at and many were killed, witnesses said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said it had received reports of tens of thousands people fleeing the fighting and looting.

"Things are getting worse and worse by the hour," Severine Chappaz, the deputy head of the ICRC's mission in Kyrgyzstan, said in a statement from Osh. "The electricity and gas have been cut off, meaning there are also no water supplies. Shops and markets are closed, leading to fears of a lack of food, especially in the hospitals and places of detention."

At a hospital near Osh airport, an AP photographer saw the bodies of 10 people killed in fighting, and a health worker said a pregnant woman also died of gunshot wounds.

In mainly Uzbek areas on the edge of Osh, residents painted the letters "SOS" on the road in a futile bid for help from the violence that began late Thursday.

Otunbayeva said there were food shortages in Osh after virtually all stores were looted or shut down. A state of emergency and a curfew was declared Friday around the city.

"Young men in white masks are marauding and stealing from the remaining stores, offices and houses, and then setting them on fire," said Bakyt Omorkulov, a member of the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, a non-governmental organization.

Omorkulov said terrified Uzbeks begged him for help, saying their houses were on fire. "They called us and were sobbing into the phone, but what can we do?" Omorkulov said.

At the Osh airport, hundreds of arriving passengers were stranded and fire from heavy machine guns and automatic weapons was heard as troops tried to gain control of roads into the city. An elite police force of 100 officers from Bishkek arrived late Saturday.

"Our task is to restore the constitutional order," said the group's leader, Nur Mambetaliyev.

In Bishkek, the interim government announced a partial mobilization of military reservists and allowed police and the troops to shoot to kill while acting to end rioting.