BISHKEK (Reuters) - The U.S. envoy for Central Asia urged Kyrgyzstan on Saturday to create conditions for a safe return of hundreds of thousands of refugees uprooted by last week’s outburst of ethnic violence.
The clashes have killed up to 2,000 people and set off a massive wave of refugees, with 400,000 people crammed in squalid camps with little access to clean water and food on Kyrgyzstan’s sun-parched border with Uzbekistan.
Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake, speaking after talks with Kyrgyz officials, said an international investigation must be held into the possible causes of the violence.
“It is important for the provisional government to establish the atmosphere of trust and security so the refugees in Uzbekistan and the internally displaced persons in Kyrgyzstan can feel confident that they can return to their homes and live in safety and harmony with their Kyrgyz neighbors,” he said.
“I think clearly there was an ethnic element to the violence that took place. But the United States does not have any independent information about what happened ...”
Kyrgyzstan’s tiny, under-equipped army has struggled to bring order to the south and relief organizations have been unable to reach the worst-affected areas for security reasons.
Some Kyrgyz officials have said a referendum on a new constitution, due be held on June 27, should be postponed until the situation stabilizes.
The United States and Russia, both operating military air bases in the strategic Muslim nation, are concerned that continued turmoil in Kyrgyzstan could spread to other parts of Central Asia, a vast former Soviet region north of Afghanistan.
The violence erupted on June 10 with coordinated attacks by unknown individuals in balaclavas and quickly spiraled into fierce fighting between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, witnesses said.
Mainly Uzbek households were targeted in three days of unrest, with entire neighborhoods burned to the ground. The U.N. says an estimated 1 million people were affected.
In remarks posted on the State Department website, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Kurmanbek Bakiyev, Kyrgyzstan’s president who was toppled in a revolt in April, may be to blame.
“Certainly, the ouster of President Bakiyev some months ago left behind those who were still his loyalists and very much against the provisional government,” she said.
“There certainly have been allegations of instigation that have to be taken seriously.”
Bakiyev, an ethnic Kyrgyz currently in exile in Belarus, has denied any involvement. The official death toll is about 190 people but the government says it is probably 10 times higher.
Interim leader Roza Otunbayeva has struggled to assert control in the shattered south where Uzbek neighborhoods have barricaded themselves against Kyrgyz parts in a standoff.
Authorities in the devastated city of Osh said they would start tearing down the barricades as part of efforts to restore order but residents said they feared that could trigger renewed unrest before the referendum.
“Soldiers armed with automatic weapons are beginning to clear the roads but people are scared there will be another war,” said Ravshan Gapirov, a human rights campaigner in Osh.
Locals say government troops joined with marauding gangs during the violence. The government has not commented on the allegations.
“Amnesty International urges the (Kyrgyz) interim government to immediately react to allegations of collusion of security forces and to send a clear signal that any human rights violations will be prosecuted,” Amnesty said in a statement.
Kyrgyzstan is a patchwork of tribes and clans and Bakiyev’s departure has set off a fierce fight for control over money in a nation lying on a big drug trafficking route out of Afghanistan.
There has always been rivalry between Kyrgyz people and traditionally richer Uzbeks. But observers say Bakiyev loyalists are playing on ethnic divisions to regain strength.
“Neither Uzbeks nor Kyrgyz are to blame for this,” Uzbek President Islam Karimov was quoted as saying. “These disruptive actions were organized and managed from outside.”
Writing by Maria Golovnina; Editing by Mark Heinrich
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