Rioting escalates in Kyrgyzstan killing 80

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Ethnic rioting spread today in southern Kyrgyzstan, where at least 80 people have been killed and more than 1,000 wounded. Thousands of Uzbeks fled after their homes were torched by roving mobs of Kyrgyz men.

Fires destroyed much of Osh, the second-largest city in a Central Asian country that hosts US and Russian military air bases. Stores were looted and the city was running out of food.

Gunfire rang out today in another major southern city, Jalal-Abad, where the day before a rampaging mob burned a university, besieged a police station and seized an armored vehicle and other weapons from a local military unit. Thousands of Kyrgyz men brandishing sticks, metals bars and hunting rifles gathered at the city's horse racing track, shouting anti-Uzbek slogans while police stayed away.

In the nearby Bazar-Kurgan village, a mob of about 400 Uzbeks overturned cars and killed a police captain, local political activist Asyl Tekebayev said. Residents said crowds of armed Kyrgyz men from other parts of the region were arriving in the village.

The riots are the worst violence since former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted in a bloody uprising in April and fled the country.

Interim President Roza Otunbayeva acknowledged yesterday that her government has lost control over Osh, a city of 250,000, even though it sent troops, armor and helicopters to quell the riots.

Otunbayeva asked Russia to send in troops, but the Kremlin said it would not meddle in what it described as Kyrgyzstan's internal conflict. Russia sent in a plane to deliver humanitarian supplies and evacuate some of the victims.

Russia has about 500 troops, mostly air force personnel, at a base in Kyrgyzstan. The United States has the Manas air base in the capital, Bishkek, a crucial supply hub for the coalition fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Both US and Russian bases are located in northern Kyrgyzstan, separated from the volatile south by the mountains.

Struggling to restore control, the interim government late Saturday announced a partial mobilization, calling up military reservists up to 50-years-old. It also allowed police and troops to shoot to kill while acting to end rioting.

The official casualty toll today rose to at least 80 people dead and 1,066 wounded, with more than 600 hospitalized, the Health Ministry said. The real figures may be much higher, because doctors and human rights workers said ethnic Uzbeks were too afraid to seek hospital treatment.

Witnesses said yesterday that many bodies were lying in the streets of Osh and more were scattered inside the burned buildings. As Uzbek refugees, mostly women and children, fled the city toward the border with Uzbekistan, they were shot at and many were killed, witnesses said.

Otunbayeva yesterday blamed Bakiyev's family for instigating the unrest in Osh, saying they aimed to derail a constitutional referendum to be held June 27.

Maksat Zheinbekov, the acting mayor of Jalal-Abad, said in a telephone interview that Bakiyev's supporters in his home region started the riots by attacking both Uzbek and Kyrgyz people. The rampaging mob quickly grew in size from several hundred to thousands, he said.

The Uzbeks have backed the interim government, while a large share of the Kyrgyz in the south support the toppled president.

The verdant and fertile Ferghana Valley 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, which blew out into open when the central controls weakened in the waning days of the Soviet empire.

In 1990, hundreds of people were killed in a violent land dispute between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Osh, and only the quick deployment of Soviet troops quelled the fighting.

Both ethnic groups are predominantly Sunni Muslim. Uzbeks are generally better off economically, but they have few representatives in positions of power and have pushed for broader political and cultural rights.

Kyrgyz residents interviewed by Associated Press Television News in Osh blamed the Uzbeks for starting the rioting late Thursday with attacks on students, including Kyrgyz women. The crowds of ethnic Kyrgyz from neighboring villages then streamed into the city to strike back at the Uzbeks, 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 is still unsafe as local residents claim Uzbek snipers continue to shoot at Kyrgyz.

A Kyrgyz man, Iskander, said he and other vigilantes burned Uzbek property to avenge their attacks.

"Whatever you see over there — all the burnt restaurants and cafeterias were owned by them (ethnic Uzbeks), and we destroyed them on purpose," he told APTN. "Why didn't they want to live in peace?"