Kyrgyzstan leader calls for Russia to send in troops

At least 62 killed in fresh outbreaks of ethnic fighting

Kyrgyzstan appealed for Russian military help yesterday to stop ethnic fighting that has killed at least 62, wounded 790 and left entire streets of Osh in flames. The interim government in Kyrgyzstan, which hosts Russian and US military bases, said it was powerless to stop armed gangs from burning down the homes and businesses of ethnic Uzbeks.

Gun battles raged throughout the night; in the morning, the sky was blackened as homes blazed. Much of central Osh was on fire, while homes in Uzbek areas also burned. "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. Bodies were reportedly lying in the street.

Police and residents said gangs of young Kyrgyz men, armed with automatic weapons, handguns and metal bars, were reported by one news agency to be streaming into Osh by road from other parts of the country and marching toward parts of the city populated by ethnic Uzbeks.

"Everywhere is burning: Uzbek homes, restaurants and cafés. The whole town is covered in smoke," said local human rights worker Dilmurad Ishanov, an ethnic Uzbek, by telephone from Osh. "We don't need the Kyrgyz authorities. We need Russia. We need troops. We need help."

The Associated Press said one of its reporters saw Uzbek children killed in the stampede for the border.

Kyrgyzstan, an impoverished former Soviet state of 5.3 million people, declared a state of emergency in Osh and several rural districts early on Friday after rival ethnic gangs fought each other with guns, iron bars and petrol bombs. "We need the entry of outside armed forces to calm the situation down," said interim government leader Roza Otunbayeva. Mrs Otunbayeva said more reinforcements would be sent to Osh. The interim government has already deployed troops and armoured vehicles and declared a night-time curfew in Osh, to no avail. There was no immediate response from Moscow to Mrs Otunbayeva's plea for help.

Gas was shut off to Osh and some areas have no electricity. "Entire streets are on fire," said Rakhmatillo Akhmedov, a spokesman for the interior ministry. "The situation is very bad. There is no sign of it stopping. Homes have been set ablaze." The interim president said that Osh was also facing a humanitarian crisis as food was running out, with virtually all shops looted or shut, or both. She said her government had decided to open the border to Uzbekistan to allow fleeing Uzbeks to escape, although it was not clear who controlled the frontier.

One witness said some women and children had made it across to the Uzbek town of Marhamat, 38 miles from Osh, and camps had been set up for those without family in Uzbekistan. A spokeswoman for the Kyrgyz health ministry said at least 62 people had been killed and 790 wounded in the violence, which is taking place in the southerly power base of former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who had been deposed in April by a popular revolt.

Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan intertwine in the Fergana Valley. While Uzbeks make up 14.5 per cent of the total Kyrgyz population, the two groups are split roughly equally in the Osh region. The latest clashes are the worst ethnic violence since the bloodshed in 1990, when then-Kremlin leader Mikhail Gorbachev sent in Soviet troops after hundreds of people were killed in clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in and around Osh.

On 19 May, two people were killed and 74 wounded in clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the city of Jalal-Abad. On the same day, Mrs Otunbayeva said she would rule until the end of 2011, scrapping plans for presidential polls in October. Renewed turmoil in Kyrgyzstan will fuel concern in Russia, the United States and neighbouring China. Washington uses an air base at Manas in the north of the country, about 190 miles from Osh, to supply its forces in Afghanistan.

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