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Uzbeks say Kyrgyzstan army 'came to kill us'

Uzbek witnesses lend credence to suspicions of organized violence, pointing to rogue elements of the Kyrgyz government sparking hundreds of deaths.
Image: Kyrgyz soldiers
Kyrgyz soldiers stop and search a car of ethnic Uzbeks as they leave a Uzbek enclave in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, on Wednesday. Bryan Denton for The New York Times
/ Source: The New York Times

As the armored personnel carrier rumbled down the street, men in Kyrgyz military uniforms clinging to its sides, residents of an ethnic Uzbek neighborhood here felt a surge of relief. The peacekeepers, it seemed, had finally arrived.

But then the men in uniforms jumped down and began firing automatic weapons into homes while shouting anti-Uzbek slurs, more than a dozen residents of the neighborhood, Shai-Tubeh, said in interviews on Wednesday. They spoke of the terrifying moments last week when they realized that they were under attack from what appeared to be their own nation’s military. They said the assailants killed several people, wounded many others and set fire to buildings.

“We believed that they had come to protect us,” said Avaz Abdukadyrov, 48. “But instead, they came to kill us.”

Mr. Abdukadyrov and others said one memory of the events last Saturday haunted them: as they fled and their homes burned, the men in uniforms laughed and danced in the street.

Question of spontaneity
In the wake of ethnic riots that broke out last Thursday night and killed hundreds over the weekend here and throughout southern Kyrgyzstan, questions arose about whether the violence was spontaneous — and then increased in the absence of strong local authority — or the work of more organized forces, possibly doing the bidding of Kyrgyzstan’s deposed president, Kurmanbek S. Bakiyev.

The accounts from the people of Shai-Tubeh and numerous other reports by witnesses lend powerful credence to suspicions of organized violence, pointing to rogue elements of the Kyrgyz government and military. The involvement of even a faction of the military could be a sign that the interim Kyrgyz government is not in complete control.

Unrest in Kyrgyzstan

Slideshow  42 photos

Unrest in Kyrgyzstan

Hundreds of thousands flee the deadliest ethnic violence in decades.

Shai-Tubeh does not seem to be an isolated case. On Wednesday, at a mosque near the border with Uzbekistan that is now sheltering ethnic Uzbek refugees, several people from other areas of Osh described similar scenes of neighborhoods and houses being assaulted by men in uniform using Kyrgyz military vehicles, arms and matériel.

A doctor at the shelter, Halisa Abdurazakova, 37, said that residents of her neighborhood had blocked the main road with large boulders and other objects after the violence started. But a Kyrgyz Army tank soon arrived, she said, and pushed aside the debris, allowing gunmen in an armored personnel carrier to drive through and start shooting.

“This was a blatant attack on us by the authorities,” Dr. Abdurazakova said.

The witness reports underscore why it may be difficult to persuade Uzbeks to return to Osh and surrounding areas. Many now see the government as the enemy, scoffing at official assurances that they can safely return.

Denial from exile
The interim government has maintained from the outset that Mr. Bakiyev, who was ousted in April, incited the rioting to destabilize the country and pave the way for his return.

From his exile in Belarus, Mr. Bakiyev has repeatedly denied any involvement in the violence. But he comes from a prominent family in southern Kyrgyzstan and is said to maintain strong ties to government and military officials in the region.

In addition to the hundreds of Uzbeks who were killed in the past week, more than 100,000 by some estimates have left their homes, mostly women and children, causing a crisis on the Uzbek border. Ethnic Uzbeks account for only about 15 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s population, but they account for a larger percentage in the Osh region. While a minority, they are generally more prosperous than the Kyrgyz, a factor that also may have figured in the animosities that have exploded, political experts say.

The Uzbeks remaining in Osh are mostly men who have hunkered down in places like Shai-Tubeh, guarding their damaged homes from looters and squatters and refusing almost all contact with the authorities. Shai-Tubeh, in fact, is part of a warren of Uzbek neighborhoods that are now closed off from the rest of Osh by makeshift roadblocks, often the carcasses of buses or cars that were damaged in the rioting.

Jittery young Uzbeks stand guard at the entrances, and rarely allow ethnic Kyrgyz to pass, not that many would try, given the still seething emotions. Even as the violence has diminished, the barricades have given Osh the feel of a city under siege, divided into ethnic cantons.

While blaming Mr. Bakiyev for the hostilities, the interim government has also dismissed questions about whether the military took part.

“These are just rumors,” said Omurbek Suvanaliyev, the Osh region’s police chief. “This is part of a large-scale disinformation campaign.”

He said it was not easy to examine who was responsible for the violence because Uzbeks were so distrustful of the Kyrgyz authorities that they would not speak to investigators. “We now do not even go into these places because we do not want to inflame the situation,” he said.

But a leader of the ethnic Uzbeks in Osh, Jalal Salakhutdinov, said evidence of military complicity reinforced Uzbek demands that an international peacekeeping force be deployed in the city, and that an international inquiry be undertaken.

“The world must learn what happened here,” Mr. Salakhutdinov said.

The accounts of witnesses in the Shai-Tubeh neighborhood could not be independently confirmed. But more than a dozen residents were interviewed separately, and they recalled many of the same details. The destruction of buildings was undeniable.

What is striking about the events in Shai-Tubeh is that they occurred well after the violence in Osh began, residents said, contradicting earlier suggestions that a few strategic attacks by agents provocateurs might have lighted a fuse on longstanding ethnic tensions.

Residents describe military shooting
It was Saturday morning, roughly 36 hours after the outbreak of violence in Osh, when the military vehicles showed up at the intersection of Lenin Street and Mamadzhan Street. Many residents had spent the night in the nearby mosque, hoping that they would be safe there.

Jahangir Karabayev, 31, said the men in Kyrgyz Army uniforms were accompanied by civilians who were also armed, as well as others in police uniforms.

“They kept chanting, ‘Uzbeks, we are going to kill you,’ and ‘This is the end of you,’ ” Mr. Karabayev said.

His brother, Anvar Karabayev, 29, owner of a convenience store, said people stayed put at first because they did not expect the soldiers to attack. “But then they started shooting, and we ran or hid,” he said.

The residents said the shooting lasted about 20 minutes, pointing to numerous walls in the neighborhood that were scarred by bullets, including those of the mosque. Some said military snipers were involved.

There was some disagreement on what started the fires. Two residents said they saw flamethrowers. Anvar Karabayev said his roof burned after being hit by tracer bullets.

On Wednesday, Anvar Karabayev offered a brief tour of his home, which is across the street from his store. The exterior and much of the interior had been devoured by fire. In a smashed box on the floor were several hundred eggs, which he had taken from the store so they would not be looted. Many had been cooked by the flames.

“This has been my family’s home for generations,” he said.

Michael Schwirtz contributed reporting from Osh, and Ellen Barry from Moscow.

This article, "Army’s Hand Suspected in Kyrgyzstan," first appeared in The New York Times.