OSH, Kyrgyzstan (Reuters) - Thousands of refugees who had fled to Uzbekistan to avoid ethnic bloodshed trekked back to burned-out homes in Kyrgyzstan on Tuesday ahead of a vote on how the Central Asian state will be governed.
Military officials in Uzbekistan, where 100,000 mainly ethnic Uzbeks took refuge from a three-day killing spree earlier this month, said about 5,000 refugees crossed back into Kyrgyzstan voluntarily.
A Reuters photographer at the border said many were in tears.
Osh, a city 10 km (6 miles) from the border that was the epicenter of the violence, was tense a day after security forces stormed ethnic Uzbek neighborhoods to search for weapons ahead of a referendum planned by the interim government for June 27.
The interim government, which swept to power after an April 7 revolt toppled the president, needs the referendum as a stepping stone toward presidential and parliamentary elections.
The United States and Russia, which both operate military air bases in Kyrgyzstan, are concerned the unrest could spread to other parts of Central Asia, a former Soviet region lying on a major drug-trafficking route out of nearby Afghanistan.
The violence began on June 10 with coordinated attacks by unidentified individuals in balaclavas and quickly led to fierce fighting between ethnic Uzbek and Kyrgyz, who comprise a roughly equal share of the population in southern Kyrgyzstan.
Mainly Uzbek households were attacked and many locals have said state troops, comprising mainly ethnic Kyrgyz soldiers, did little to protect them and in some cases took part in attacks.
Ethnic Uzbeks have blockaded themselves into parts of Osh, afraid of renewed violence. In one such suburb, Dekhkan Kishlak, locals said they had been beaten by security forces and their jewelry and money stolen during a two-hour raid on Monday.
Several women said armed men identifying themselves as security forces burst into the district, beat them with rifle butts and stole sacks of flour delivered as humanitarian aid.
“They told us that, if we are still here in 10 days, we will be hanged from the lampposts,” said Karima, 34, a mother of three who declined to give her full name for fear of reprisals.
Just a few hundred Uzbeks remain in the suburb, where two days earlier more than 1,500 people had sought refuge in concrete stables and dog kennels. Many have returned to their homes or are living in Uzbek houses elsewhere in Osh.
In another suburb, Nariman, men in embroidered skullcaps mourned the death of two civilians on Tuesday. A third man later died of a heart attack after being beaten, they said.
Kyrgyz authorities said law enforcement forces had met “armed resistance” during the security checks. Large boulders lay across the road into Nariman to keep out Kyrgyz forces.
While the official death toll from the clashes stands at 214, interim government leader Roza Otunbayeva has said 10 times as many people may have been killed in the violence.
About 400,000 people fled, a quarter of whom crossed to the Uzbek side of the border, and have been living in squalid camps and sleeping out in the open with little access to food and water.
United Nations Special Envoy Miroslav Jenca, visiting Osh, said he had been informed that thousands of ethnic Uzbeks were returning home. The U.N. Refugee Agency has set up an office at the city’s airport.
“There is still a lot of hatred, so it is an enormous challenge for the interim government and for local authorities to create conditions and show clearly that Uzbeks are welcome,” Jenca said.
He was overseeing the delivery of 40 tonnes of medicine from a truck to a hospital in central Osh, surrounded by charred houses and walls pockmarked by bullets.
Otunbayeva, whose tiny, under-equipped army has struggled to bring order to the south, visited the region for a second day. She has rejected calls from some officials for the referendum to be postponed, saying any delays would risk a return to violence.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has said it will not send short-term observers to Kyrgyzstan for the referendum for security reasons.
Otunbayeva has suggested security personnel loyal to ousted president Kurmanbek Bakiyev could have participated in the violence.
Bakiyev, who is in exile in Belarus, has denied any role in fomenting the clashes. The United States has called for an international investigation.
Additional reporting by Shamil Zhumatov in Yorkishlok and Maria Golovnina in Bishkek, writing by Robin Paxton; Editing by Noah Barkin
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