Leading article: Menacing shades of the Great Game

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The Independent Online

It is a tangled web that the West has woven for itself in Central Asia. And nowhere are the knots more convoluted, and more urgently in need of resolution, than in Kyrgyzstan. One of the smallest, least developed and apparently most quiescent of the five former Soviet republics in the region, Kyrgyzstan looked a reasonable bet to host a US air base that is crucial to Nato operations in Afghanistan.

In the past five years, however, Kyrgyzstan has suffered three major ructions. In 2005, the last Soviet-era president, Askar Akayev, was overthrown in the so-called "tulip" revolution. This April, a similar fate befell his successor, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who fled to Belarus. The past 10 days have seen violent confrontations in the Bakiyev family's power base in the south. Tens of thousands have crossed into Uzbekistan from the cities of Osh and Jalalabad. Kyrgyzstan's interim president says the death toll could reach 2,000; the number of refugees is reported to approach half a million.

The risks here are legion. The preponderance of displaced people threatens to destabilise the always volatile political and ethnic mix of the Fergana valley, where Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan all converge. Whether or not the violence in Kyrgyzstan was ethnic in origin or sparked by post-Bakiyev power play, it manifested itself in apparently orchestrated attacks on the Uzbek minority. And while the US airbase, which is in the north, may be secure, it too has been drawn into the equation: the Kyrgyz leadership is threatening to close it unless the US agrees to return Maxim Bakiyev, the former leader's son, who is accused of fomenting the violence. This, in turn, brings in Britain, where Bakiyev Jr is seeking asylum.

The durability of the current Kyrgyz leadership can by no means be taken for granted, and its pleas to Moscow to intervene have so far been rebuffed. Stung by its Georgian adventure, Russia prefers to work through the UN. In whatever form, though, the outside world must take a closer, and better-informed, interest. We can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to a part of Central Asia that increasingly resembles a powder keg crossed with a power vacuum.