OSH, Kyrgyzstan (Reuters) - Kyrgyz troops patrolled the burned-out streets of the southern city of Osh on Wednesday to maintain a fragile peace between ethnic groups after days of fighting that forced tens of thousands to flee.
Mainly Muslim Kyrgyzstan has been on edge since a revolt in April toppled the president and brought an interim government to power in the impoverished Central Asian state, which hosts U.S. and Russian military bases.
Clashes between its main ethnic groups, Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, erupted in the south on June 10 and escalated into the deadliest violence in the former Soviet republic in 20 years.
At least 187 people have been killed and nearly 2,000 wounded, mainly in Osh, a low-rise city of mud-brick houses and crumbling Soviet-era architecture near the Uzbek border.
Russia and the West fear the violence could produce a vacuum and the country might then provide safe haven to Islamic militants and organized crime gangs. Analysts say any attempt to impose Islamic rule would likely fail.
The violence has subsided in past days but a constitutional referendum expected next week may reignite tensions.
Gunfire echoed in Osh overnight, residents said. “Death to Uzbeks” was painted in red on some house fronts.
Lined with blackened shells of cars and torched shops, Osh appeared devoid of pedestrians. Troops patrolled the area in armored personnel carriers.
A Kyrgyz soldier at one checkpoint, asked to assess the security situation, said: “Everything is relative.”
The International Crisis Group urged the interim government to request the assistance of the international community, through the United Nations Security Council, to ensure the protection of its population from further violence.
“A large number of weapons are almost certainly missing as the result of raids on police, military posts and arsenals. Anger is still high,” the group said in a statement.
The interim government has appealed to Russia to send in troops to quell the violence. When Kyrgyz and Uzbeks clashed in 1990, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, then-Kremlin leader Mikhail Gorbachev sent in troops to stop the killing.
Russia has said it does not plan to send peacekeeping troops outside the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Moscow-led security grouping of ex-Soviet republics.
“We will be guided by the documents governing the CSTO,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a news conference.
In the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, divided from the troubled south by mountains, flags flew at half-mast in honor of those who died in the ethnic killings.
“Please stop this bloodshed. That’s enough blood,” said Valery Chulkin, a Bishkek resident. “What’s happening in the south is unbelievable.”
Uzbeks and Kyrgyz have blamed the attacks on each other. The office of U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has said the attacks appear to have begun with five coordinated attacks that then took on an inter-ethnic character.
The new government has accused deposed president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, an ethnic Kyrgyz, of instigating the violence. Bakiyev, in exile in Belarus, has denied any involvement.
The government says it is determined to hold the referendum on June 27 to vote on constitutional changes it says will make Kyrgyzstan more democratic. But if violence flares again, the vote will be next to impossible to organize.
The government has said more violence could occur around Bishkek but says it has enough forces to fend off any attacks.
The United States said Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake would go to Bishkek on Friday.
The events in the south prompted 100,000 refugees to flee into Uzbekistan, most facing severe water and food shortages.
The interim government said the real death toll could be much higher. The International Committee of the Red Cross says many bodies were being buried before being identified.
The U.N. human rights office said it was concerned aid was not reaching some Uzbeks in Osh, partly because the population remained fearful and suspicious of outside assistance.
“It is to the point that they are not letting Kyrgyz doctors in because of the fear between the two groups now,” U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville said in Geneva.
“It is vital that aid is not perceived as going along ethnic lines to either side.”
On the Uzbek border, hundreds of refugees were stranded, unable to cross after Uzbekistan, struggling with the influx, partially sealed the frontier on Monday.
At one border post, a Reuters photographer on the Uzbek side said some people were being let through a rickety bridge across a river, the bank on the Kyrgyz side littered with rubble.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov spoke by telephone with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday and urged swifter aid delivery, Uzbekistan’s official news agency UzA reported.
Karimov “emphasized that the assistance which so far has been offered by U.N. structures and individual states should be speeded up, considering the situation the suffering people are in” and “voiced the need to reduce the quantity of intermediaries” in aid deliveries, UzA said on its website.
The U.N. refugee agency said the first two of six flights planned for this week had landed in the eastern Uzbek city of Andizhan, carrying tents and other emergency supplies to the tens of thousands of refugees who have crossed the border.
The UNHCR also plans a separate airlift and deployment of an emergency team in Kyrgyzstan, spokesman Andrej Mahecic said.