Violence returns to Kyrgyzstan as 40 are killed in gang riots

Troops despatched to second city after ethnic tensions with Uzbeks boil over
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The Independent Online

The central Asian state of Kyrgyzstan is in chaos again after bloody riots in the south killed almost 40 and injured more than 500. The fighting broke out late on Thursday night in Osh, the country's second largest city, and was believed to have been fuelled by ethnic tensions.

Armed gangs roamed the streets last night with sticks, stones and petrol bombs. The government declared a state of emergency and said it was dispatching troops and armoured vehicles to quell the violence.

The Osh region, close to the border with Uzbekistan, has an equally split population of ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. It seems that the initial trigger for the violence was a fistfight between a group of young Kyrgyz and Uzbek men, and the situation quickly spiralled out of control, with a cycle of mutual reprisals getting ever more violent.

Yesterday evening, gangs of young Kyrgyz men were marauding through the Uzbek part of Osh, setting homes and teahouses ablaze as they went.

Already, 37 people have been confirmed dead and 523 injured, and these figures seem certain to rise. The health ministry spokeswoman Yelena Bailinova said that dozens of people were being treated for knife and gunshot wounds.

Kyrgyzstan has been delicately balanced between fragile stability and all-out chaos since April when the then-president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, was deposed. Widely detested and accused of nepotism and corruption, he fled the country and a provisional government led by Roza Otunbayeva took over.

Ms Otunbayeva is seen as a moderate, and unlike others in the loose coalition of opposition forces now in power has never been tainted with corruption allegations.

Initially, there was a promise of presidential elections in autumn this year, but in an attempt to quell unrest and create a period of stability, these were called off. Ms Otunbayeva now says she will remain President until late next year, when elections will be held for which she will not stand.

Nevertheless, the situation has remained volatile. The capital, Bishkek, has been largely calm since the April riots. But there have been sporadic clashes in the south of the country involving supporters of Mr Bakiyev, and now ethnic tensions in the region appear to have been stirred.

"Regrettably for us, we're clearly talking about a stand-off between two ethnicities," said Ms Otunbayeva in Bishkek yesterday. "We need [to muster] forces and means to stop and calm these people down, and this is what we are doing right now."

Witnesses in the centre of Osh said that yesterday evening, a group of around 300 aggressive youths was moving from the Kyrgyz quarter of Osh to the Uzbek section, setting fire to buildings in their wake. No police or armed forces were on the scene to check the advance of the gangs.

Rumours were spreading in the city that Uzbeks had entered Kyrgyz houses and gone on a rape spree the previous night; others spoke of a column of tanks approaching the territory from neighbouring Uzbekistan. It was impossible to verify such reports.

Ms Otunbayeva said crowds of "weird and suspicious-looking people" were streaming down to Osh from all directions, though she did not specify whether these people were ethnic Kyrgyz or Uzbeks. "The situation remains complicated," she said. "Attempts are being made to block practically all the roads leading to Osh."

In 1990, during the collapse of the Soviet Union, hundreds died in ethnic clashes near Osh. The city sits in the densely populated Fergana Valley, split between Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan by jagged borders drawn up during Stalin's reign that often have little relation to the ethnic make-up of the population. On the Uzbek side of the valley, a popular uprising in the city of Andijan five years ago led to Uzbek security forces massacring hundreds of the protesters.

Regional leaders, who happened to be in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, for a security summit yesterday, called for a quick end to the violence. However, the Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, said that the rioting was an internal matter for Kyrgyzstan, and ruled out intervention from the ODKB, a Moscow-led grouping of armed forces in the region.