In the worst ethnic violence this Central Asia nation has seen in 20 years, marauding Kyrgyz gangs were last night accused of "committing genocide", burning ethnic Uzbeks out of their homes and embarking on a three-day rampage of killing, which some human rights activists on the scene estimated has killed more than 500 people.
Uzbekistan's Emergencies Ministry said that more than 75,000 people – mainly women, children and the elderly – had fled across the border to escape the rampage of killing, which began in Kyrgyzstan's second city of Osh and across the south to Jalalabad.
Speaking from behind the barricades he had erected to protect his home, Takhir Maksitov of the human rights group Citizens Against Corruption said he believed there could be a political dimension to the slaughter.
"This is genocide, because there are many Uzbeks here, and if we were to create our own party and go to the polls..." he told Reuters, his voice tailing off, before adding: "Send in the peacekeepers, Russia, the UN, whoever. The most important thing is to stop the slaughter."
Kyrgyzstan's interim authorities – in charge since former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was deposed in violent riots in April – have appealed for the Russian Army to intervene and restore order in the south.
Moscow yesterday sent a battalion of troops to the country to protect its Kant airbase in the north, but insisted that it would not intervene in what it described as an "internal matter". The US – which also has a base in the north that is a crucial supply hub for troops in Afghanistan – called for the "immediate restoration of order".
At the Uzbek border, which had been closed since the April riots, there was chaos with long lines of people, some of whom had gunshot wounds, begging to be let across. The Emergencies Ministry said it was setting up refugee camps in several areas of Uzbekistan.
In Osh, the region's main city and the epicentre of the violence, there were few attributes of a functioning city remaining yesterday. Residents said almost every shop had been looted, and cafes and restaurants burned to the ground. There was no food to be bought and communications are difficult as people were unable to buy credit to top up their mobile phones.
Ash clouds hung low over the city, a constant reminder of the orgy of torching and killing that has unfolded over the last three days. Soldiers have been ordered to "shoot to kill" if they come across rioters, but witnesses said there was little military presence in the region.
"God help us! They are killing Uzbeks like animals. Almost the whole city is in flames," Dilmurad Ishanov, an ethnic Uzbek human rights worker, told Reuters.
Officially, 113 people are reported dead but residents described dozens of corpses in the streets and predicted that the final death toll would rise dramatically. "The real figures are going to be much, much higher than what we are hearing at the moment," Angela Berg of Human Rights Watch, who has been in the city throughout the riots, told The Independent. "Adding up the numbers of dead that have been reported to me from different districts, I have a figure of about 520, and it may be even higher than that."
Ms Berg said that some of the city's Uzbek neighbourhoods were now quiet, but in others there were reports of torching, looting and killing underway. Some houses and cars had been daubed with the word "Kyrgyz" in painted letters, to warn off potential rioters looking for Uzbek victims.
Around 1,400 people have reported injuries, with some 600 being hospitalised, but again this figure may not give the whole picture. It is thought that many Uzbeks with injuries have not dared to venture in search of medical assistance, terrified of repeat attacks if they leave their houses.
Habibullah Khurulayev, a retired builder in a besieged Uzbek district of Osh, told Reuters Uzbeks armed with hunting rifles had set up improvised barricades to keep out roaming gangs of Kyrgyz. "They are killing us with impunity. The police are doing nothing. They are helping them kill us... There are not many of us left to shoot."
The violence spread yesterday to the neighbouring city of Jalalabad, where residents told Russian television that there were dozens of bodies lying in the streets.
There is a history of violence between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in the region. In 1990, as the Soviet Union was disintegrating, violent clashes left hundreds dead, and only the quick deployment of Soviet troops quelled the fighting.
Throughout the recent political turmoil in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbeks mostly supported the new provisional government, while Kyrgyz in the south of the country, Mr Bakiyev's traditional power base, back the ousted president. The interim authorities suggested dark forces loyal to Mr Bakiyev had provoked the riots, attacking both Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in a bid to stir up violence and destabilise the country.
Mr Bakiyev, who has taken refuge in Belarus, denied these claims. "The Kyrgyz republic is on the verge of losing its statehood. People are dying and no one from the current authorities is in a position to protect them," he said.
Kyrgyz and Uzbeks: a violent history
Why has the violence broken out?
There is a long history of violence between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the densely populated Fergana Valley, split between Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Poverty and unemployment are rife, fuelling discontent and mistrust, and the power vacuum created by Kyrgyzstan's April revolution has allowed old grievances to be settled in the most bloody way.
Will the situation deteriorate further?
Since April, Kyrgyzstan has been teetering on the brink of chaos, and it is clear that the interim authorities are not in full control of the country. The situation remains volatile and unpredictable, and there is a possibility that both ethnic and political-based violence between supporters of the deposed president and his opponents could worsen.
Will Russia send its troops in?
Russia has so far declined to get involved. However, if the violence continues, Moscow may decide that it has no choice but to intervene. Russia may also welcome the chance to show that it is still the key player in Central Asia, despite recent US and Chinese inroads into the region.
Is the US airbase affected?
The Manas airbase, which handles US troops and cargo en route to Afghanistan, is in the north, well away from these riots. But Washington will be worried about the continuing instability.
Will Uzbekistan get involved?
Uzbekistan has partially opened its border and let through some of the ethnic Uzbek refugees fleeing the violence, but it is unlikely to get intervene militarily. Strongman President Islam Karimov will be worried about potential knock-on effects of the instability. Thousands of refugees fleeing rioting and revolution could be a destabilising influence on Karimov's iron grip on power.Reuse content