OSH, Kyrgyzstan — Thousands of Uzbeks fleeing southern Kyrgyzstan amassed at the border Monday, as the deadliest ethnic violence in decades left entire city blocks burned to the ground and scores of people dead.
The official death toll from the clashes that began last week reached 117, with 1,500 injured, the Health Ministry of the beleaguered former Soviet country, which hosts U.S. and Russian military bases, announced early Monday.
But an Uzbek leader claimed that 200 Uzbeks have already been buried, and the International Committee of the Red Cross has said its delegates witnessed about 100 bodies being buried in just one cemetery.
Jallahitdin Jalilatdinov, who heads the Uzbek National Center, also told The Associated Press on Monday that at least 100,000 had fled for the border and were awaiting entry into Uzbekistan. An Associated Press reporter saw at least hundreds of Uzbek refugees stuck at a border crossing near Jalal-Abad in no-man’s-land between the boundaries.
The interim government, which took over after Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted by a public revolt in April, has been unable to stop the violence and accused Bakiyev’s family of instigating it. Uzbeks have backed the interim government, while many Kyrgyz in the south have supported the toppled president.
New fires raged Monday across Osh — the country’s second-largest city, on the border with Uzbekistan, where food and water were becoming scarce. Armed looters smashed stores, stealing everything from televisions to food.
In the mainly Uzbek district of Aravanskoe, an area formerly brimming with shops and restaurants, entire streets have been burned to the ground. In one still smouldering building, an Associated Press photographer saw the charred bodies of three people burned to death.
Despite military patrols, sporadic gunfire could be heard across the city. It was unclear who was shooting.
No police could be seen on the streets, though authorities insisted some of the improvised checkpoints dotted around the city of 250,000 were theirs.
Cars stolen from ethnic Uzbeks raced around the city, most crowded with young Kyrgyz wielding sharpened sticks, axes and metal rods.
In some parts of Osh, Kyrgyz residents protected homes housing both Kyrgyz and Uzbeks.
In another city beset by violence, Jalal-Abad, about 25 miles (40 kilometres) away, armed Kyrgyz amassed at the central square. Their goal was to travel to the nearby Uzbek settlement of Suzak in search of an Uzbek community leader they blame for starting the trouble.
As the clashes continued, desperately needed aid began trickling into the south. Several planes arrived at Osh airport loaded with tons of urgently needed medical supplies from the World Health Organization. Trucks carried the supplies into the city centre accompanied by tank and trailed by an armoured personnel carrier.
Flights were cancelled to Osh and Jalal-Abad, though at least one regularly scheduled flight landed in the city, carrying acting deputy Prime Minister Omurbek Tekebayev.
The Uzbek border is just 3 miles (5 kilometres) from Osh. Uzbek refugees were mostly elderly people, women and children, with younger men staying behind to defend their property. Some were fired on as they fled.
The United States, Russia and the U.N. chief all expressed alarm about the scale of the violence and discussed how to help the refugees. The U.S. and Russia both have military bases in northern Kyrgyzstan, away from the rioting. Russia sent in an extra battalion to protect its air base.
The U.S. Manas air base in Bishkek is a crucial supply hub for the coalition fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Manas was working with the U.S. State Department and interim government to help deliver food and medical supplies, said Air Force Maj. John A. Elolf, a spokesman at the base.
Uzbeks make up 15 per cent of Kygryzstan’s 5 million people, but in the south their numbers rival ethnic Kyrgyz. 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, rekindling old rivalries.
From his self-imposed exile in Belarus, Bakiyev denied any role in the violence and blamed interim authorities for failing to protect the people.
Interim President Roza Otunbayeva’s government had hoped to seal its political and democratic credentials in a referendum to approve a new constitution on June 27, but the likelihood of that vote taking place now looks slim.
The question of sending in foreign peacekeepers is yet to be formally raised in Moscow: A man who answered the telephone at the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization said the issue would be discussed on Monday, but his superior later said it remained unclear whether the meeting would go ahead.
In 1990, hundreds were killed in a land dispute between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Osh, and only quick deployment of Soviet troops quelled the fighting. With no Russian troops in sight this time, 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 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.
Associated Press writers D. Dalton Bennett in Osh and Leila Saralayeva in Bishkek contributed to this report.