Kyrgyz mobs burned Uzbek villages, slaughtered their residents and stormed police stations seeking to loot more weapons Sunday as ethnic rioting engulfed new areas in southern Kyrgyzstan.
The interim government in the impoverished Central Asian nation ordered troops to shoot rioters dead but even that has failed to stop the spiraling violence that has left more than 100 people dead and about 1,250 wounded since Thursday night.
Doctors and rights activists say that official toll is far too low because wounded minority Uzbeks are too afraid of being attacked again to go to hospitals.
The riots are the worst violence since former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted in a bloody uprising in April and fled the country. The Uzbeks have backed the interim government, while many Kyrgyz in the south support the toppled president.
Thousands of Uzbeks have fled in panic to the nearby border with Uzbekistan after their homes were torched by roving mobs of Kyrgyz men. Some Uzbek women and children were gunned down as they tried to escape, witnesses said.
Fires set by rioters have destroyed most of Osh, the country's second-largest city, and looters have stolen most of its food. Triumphant crowds of Kyrgyz men took control of most of Osh on Sunday while the few Uzbeks still in the city of 250,000 barricaded themselves in their neighborhoods.
Fires continued to rage across Osh and occasional shots were heard. Police were nowhere to be seen.
Police, military on the defensive
The rampages spread quickly Sunday to Jalal-Abad, another major southern city, and its neighboring villages, as mobs methodically set Uzbek houses, stores and cafes on fire. The rioters seized an armored 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. Flights to both Osh and Jalal-Abad were canceled.
Interim President Roza Otunbayeva blamed Bakiyev's family for instigating the unrest in Osh, saying it was aimed at derailing a constitutional referendum on June 27 and new elections scheduled for October. A local official said Bakiyev supporters had attacked both Kyrgyz and Uzbeks to ignite the rioting.
"Bakiyev's entourage has funded and organized these riots," Otunbayeva's deputy Omurbek Tekebayev told The Associated Press.
From his self-imposed exile in Belarus, Bakiyev issued a statement denying any role in the violence and blaming the interim authorities for failing to protect the population.
Bakiyev was propelled to power in 2005 on a wave of street protests, but his authority collapsed amid growing corruption allegations, worsening living conditions and political repression.
Otunbayeva asked Russia for military help to quell the violence, but the Kremlin refused, saying it would not meddle in an internal conflict. Russia did send a plane to deliver humanitarian supplies and evacuate some victims.
Kyrgyzstan hosts both U.S. and Russian military air bases, but they are in the north, away from the fighting.
The U.S. Manas air base in the capital, Bishkek, is a crucial supply hub for the coalition fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. A Pentagon spokesman said the interim government had not asked for any U.S. military help.
The U.S. Embassy in Kyrgyzstan voiced a deep concern about the raging violence and called for the "immediate restoration of order and a respect for rule of law." It said it was discussing humanitarian aid with the interim government.
Uzbekistan's Foreign Ministry condemned the riots and voiced hope that Kyrgyzstan will re-establish order. Uzbekistan's authoritarian President Islam Karimov is unlikely to interfere into the conflict.
In Jalal-Abad on Sunday, thousands of Kyrgyz men brandishing sticks, metals bars and hunting rifles gathered at the city's race track and marched to burn Uzbek property while frightened police stayed away. Uzbeks felled trees on the city's main thoroughfare, trying to block their advance. Jalal-Abad is 45 miles (70 kilometers) from Osh.
Kyrgyz mobs tried to storm the city's hospital, but Uzbeks drove them off after a fierce gunbattle that raged for hours, witnesses said. Mobs also surrounded a local prison, trying to free its inmates and attempted repeatedly to capture the Jalal-Abad police headquarters, but were repelled.
Kyrgyz mobs killed about 30 Uzbeks Sunday in the village of Suzak in the Jalal-Abad region, Talaaibek Myrzabayev, the chief military conscription officer in Bishkek, told The Associated Press. Another Uzbek village, Dostuk, was burned by Kyrgyz assailants, but it was not known how many people were killed there, he said.
Ethnic Uzbeks ambushed about 100 Kyrgyz men Sunday on a road near Jalal-Abad and took them hostage, he said. Vehicles on the main highway near Jalal-Abad repeatedly came under fire from unidentified gunmen.
In the nearby village of Bazar-Kurgan, a mob of 400 Uzbeks overturned cars and killed a police captain, local political activist Asyl Tekebayev said. Residents said armed Kyrgyz men were flooding into the village to retaliate.
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. The Stalinist borders rekindled old rivalries and fomented ethnic tensions.
Both ethnic groups are predominantly Sunni Muslim. Uzbeks are generally better off economically, but they have few representatives in power and have pushed for broader political and cultural rights.
In 1990, hundreds were killed in a violent land dispute between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Osh, and only the quick deployment of Soviet troops quelled the fighting. With no Russian troops in sight, the interim government announced a partial mobilization late Saturday of military reservists up to 50 years old.
"No one is rushing to help us, so we need to establish order ourselves," said Talaaibek Adibayev, a 39-year old army veteran who showed up at Bishkek's military conscription office.
The official casualty toll Sunday rose to at least 97 people killed and 1,243 wounded, the Health Ministry said. The figure didn't include the 30 or more deaths Sunday around Jalal-Abad.
Witnesses saw bodies lying in the streets of Osh on Saturday, and more scattered inside the many burned buildings in Uzbek neighborhoods. As Uzbek refugees, mostly women and children, fled the city toward the border, witness said many were shot at and killed.
Maksat Zheinbekov, the acting mayor of Jalal-Abad, told the AP in a telephone interview that Bakiyev's supporters had triggered the riots by attacking both Uzbeks and Kyrgyz.
'Why do they burn my house?'
Kyrgyz residents interviewed by the AP in Osh blamed Uzbeks for starting the rioting with attacks on students and Kyrgyz women. Ethnic Kyrgyz from neighboring villages then streamed into the city to strike back, they said.
"Why have them Uzbeks become so brazen?" said one Osh resident, who gave only her first name, Aigulia, because she feared for her safety. "Why do they burn my house?"
Aigulia said her house was destroyed by Uzbeks overnight and all her Kyrgyz neighbors had to run for their safety. She said the area was still unsafe, claiming Uzbek snipers were shooting at them.
A Kyrgyz man, Iskander, said he and others burned Uzbek property to avenge their attacks.
"Whatever you see over there — all the burnt restaurants and cafeterias — were owned by them and we destroyed them on purpose," he told the AP. "Why didn't they want to live in peace?"