BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan (AP) — Kyrgyz mobs burned Uzbek villages and slaughtered their residents Sunday in the worst ethnic rioting this Central Asian nation has seen in 20 years, sending more than 75,000 Uzbeks fleeing across the border into Uzbekistan.
Most of the Uzbek refugees were elderly people, women and children, and many had gunshot wounds, the Uzbek Emergencies Ministry said in a statement carried by Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency. It said refugee camps were being set up for them in several areas of Uzbekistan.
Fires set by rioters have destroyed most of Osh, the second-largest city in Kyrgyzstan, and food was scarce after widespread looting. Triumphant crowds of Kyrgyz men took control of Osh on Sunday as the few Uzbeks still left in the city of 250,000 barricaded themselves in their neighborhoods. Fires continued to rage across Osh and shots were heard but police were nowhere to be seen.
The rioting has significant political overtones. Former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted in a bloody uprising in April and fled the country. Uzbeks have backed Kyrgyzstan’s interim government, while many Kyrgyz in the south support the toppled president.
Interim President Roza Otunbayeva blamed Bakiyev’s family for instigating the unrest, saying it aimed to derail a June 27 constitutional referendum and new elections scheduled for October. A local official in the south said Bakiyev supporters had attacked both Kyrgyz and Uzbeks to ignite the rioting.
From his self-imposed exile in Belarus, Bakiyev denied any role in the violence and blamed interim authorities for failing to protect the people.
The interim government has ordered troops to shoot rioters dead but even that failed to stop the spiraling violence that has left more than 100 people dead and over 1,250 wounded since Thursday night. Doctors say that toll is far too low because wounded minority Uzbeks are too afraid of being attacked again to go to hospitals.
The rampages spread quickly Sunday to Jalal-Abad, another major southern city, and its neighboring villages, as mobs methodically set Uzbek houses, stores and cafes on fire. The rioters seized an armored vehicle and automatic weapons at a local military unit and attacked police stations around the region trying to get more firearms.
Police and the military appeared to be on the defensive across the south, avoiding clashes with mobs. Flights to both Osh and Jalal-Abad were canceled.
“Bakiyev’s entourage has funded and organized these riots,” Otunbayeva’s deputy Omurbek Tekebayev told The Associated Press.
Kyrgyzstan hosts both U.S. and Russian military air bases, but they are in the north, away from the rioting. Otunbayeva had asked Russia for military help Saturday to quell the rioting, but the Kremlin refused.
But Russia on Sunday sent a battalion of paratroopers — about 300 people — to reinforce security at its air base, the Interfax news agency reported. The base has about 500 personnel, most air force members.
The U.S. Manas air base in the capital, Bishkek, is a crucial supply hub for the coalition fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, but a Pentagon spokesman said the interim government had not asked for any U.S. military help.
The U.S. Embassy in Kyrgyzstan voiced a deep concern about the raging violence and called for the “immediate restoration of order and a respect for rule of law.” It said it was discussing humanitarian aid with the interim government.
In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was “alarmed by the scale of the clashes” and the mounting death toll and was discussing what aid the U.N. could send to help the fleeing refugees.
Uzbekistan’s Foreign Ministry condemned the riots and voiced hope that Kyrgyzstan will re-establish order, but the country’s authoritarian President Islam Karimov is unlikely to interfere in the conflict.
In Jalal-Abad on Sunday, thousands of Kyrgyz men brandishing sticks, metals bars and hunting rifles marched together to burn Uzbek property while frightened police stayed away. Uzbeks felled trees on the city’s main street, trying to block their advance. Jalal-Abad is 45 miles (70 kilometers) from Osh.
Kyrgyz mobs tried to storm the city’s hospital, but Uzbeks drove them off after a fierce gunbattle that raged for hours, witnesses said. Mobs also surrounded a local prison, trying to free its inmates and attempted repeatedly to capture the Jalal-Abad police headquarters, but were repelled.
Kyrgyz mobs killed about 30 Uzbeks Sunday in the village of Suzak in the Jalal-Abad region, Talaaibek Myrzabayev, the chief military conscription officer in Bishkek, told the AP. Another Uzbek village, Dostuk, was burned by Kyrgyz assailants, but it was not known how many people were killed, he said.
Ethnic Uzbeks ambushed about 100 Kyrgyz men Sunday on a road near Jalal-Abad and took them hostage, he said. Vehicles on the main highway near Jalal-Abad repeatedly came under fire from unidentified gunmen.
In the nearby village of Bazar-Kurgan, a mob of 400 Uzbeks overturned cars and killed a police captain, local Asyl Tekebayev said. Residents said armed Kyrgyz men were flooding into the village to retaliate.
The fertile Ferghana Valley where Osh and Jalal-Abad are located 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.
Both ethnic groups are predominantly Sunni Muslim. Uzbeks are generally better off economically, but they have few representatives in power and have pushed for broader political and cultural rights.
In 1990, hundreds were killed in a violent land dispute between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Osh, and only the quick deployment of Soviet troops quelled the fighting. With no Russian troops in sight, the interim government announced a partial mobilization of military reservists up to 50 years old.
“No one is rushing to help us, so we need to establish order ourselves,” said Talaaibek Adibayev, a 39-year old army veteran who showed up at Bishkek’s military conscription office.
The official casualty toll Sunday rose to at least 97 people killed and 1,243 wounded, the Health Ministry said. The figure didn’t include the 30 or more deaths Sunday around Jalal-Abad.
Maksat Zheinbekov, the acting mayor of Jalal-Abad, told the AP that Bakiyev’s supporters had triggered the riots by attacking both Uzbeks and Kyrgyz.
Kyrgyz residents interviewed by AP Television News in Osh blamed Uzbeks for starting the rioting by attacking students and Kyrgyz women. Ethnic Kyrgyz from neighboring villages then streamed into the city to strike back, 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 was still unsafe, claiming Uzbek snipers were shooting at them.
A Kyrgyz man, Iskander, said he and others burned Uzbek property to avenge their attacks.
“Whatever you see over there — all the burnt restaurants and cafeterias — were owned by them and we destroyed them on purpose,” he told the AP. “Why didn’t they want to live in peace?”