Investigators in southern Kyrgyzstan began exhuming the bodies of those killed during rampages against the Uzbek minority as tensions rose ahead of tomorrow's constitutional referendum.
This impoverished Central Asian nation was thrown into chaos by five days of ethnic violence two weeks ago, when mobs of ethnic Kyrgyz attacked ethnic Uzbek neighborhoods in the south.
The violence followed a bloody uprising in April that toppled President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, and the interim government has accused Bakiyev's followers of instigating the violence so the referendum is canceled or postponed.
Bakiyev, in exile, has denied any links to the purges, but Kyrgyz authorities said yesterday they had arrested a nephew of Bakiyev and charged him with helping organize the deadly rioting. His son Maxim has also been arrested in Britain.
Uzbeks have mostly supported the interim government, while Kyrgyz in the south backed Bakiyev.
Kyrgyzstan is on high security alert for tomorrow's vote, with almost 8,000 police officers and a similar number of defence volunteers being deployed. Numerous checkpoints have been set up throughout the capital, Bishkek, and in the southern cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad. The vote is seen as an important step on the road to democracy for the interim government.
Acting deputy Interior Minster Bakyt Alynbayev said digging up the corpses was essential for an accurate investigation. A large number of the victims were not officially identified because many were buried quickly in keeping with Muslim tradition.
"This is mainly in the interests of the victims themselves," Alynbayev told reporters Saturday. "There should be no particular unhappiness, because this is necessary for settling the issue of compensation."
Yet at one cemetery in a mainly Uzbek neighborhood, an angry crowd gathered today as investigators accompanied by more than a dozen uniformed soldiers began digging up recently buried graves.
"Why are they doing this? We buried the dead as is proper, we read our prayers," said resident Abdulvasil Satybaldiev. "This isn't right, this isn't fair."
An official with the local prosecutor's office, Kurbanali Tashkulov, said 10 unidentified bodies, some of them wrapped in carpets, were being exhumed at the cemetery.
"Investigations will be carried out on the unidentified bodies to establish their identities and the cause of death," Tashkulov said.
Interim President Roza Otunbayeva has said up to 2,000 people, including some Kyrgyz, may have been killed in the violence. Some in the Uzbek community have accused elements in Kyrgyzstan's military of complicity in attacks on their neighborhoods that left around 1,800 homes and businesses destroyed by arson.
Alynbayev said 60 people have been arrested on suspicion of organizing the mass unrest.
Police and military have been conducting security raid in Osh, the focal point of the violence that began June 10, in what they say is an attempt to seize unauthorized weapons.