Monday, November 29, 1999

Anger amid the ruins as Uzbeks grieve after riots

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A view from a mountain top towering over the Kyrgyz city of Osh reveals a maze of charred ruins and smouldering rubble that once formed the heart of the city's biggest Uzbek neighbourhood.Thousands of people, mainly women and children, have fled the area since last week when the dusty streets outside their homes turned into an ethnic battleground.Those who stayed behind walked listlessly through the ghostly streets, littered with glass and bullet casings, as the city struggled to come to terms with its grief.An uneasy calm has returned to Osh after days of fighting that has killed at least 187 people around the region, but the streets were full of reminders of the violence."Uzbeks get out of here," said a sign on one ruined wall on the main Navoi street, named after a mediaeval Uzbek poet and perched in the shadow of the ragged Suleiman mountain.Patches of blood dotted the potholed streets where bodies fell and some pavements had "SOS" written on them. Occasional gunfire popped in the distance."We are taking our children away," Iroda, an Uzbek, said as she walked with her children towards the Uzbek border, just over 10 km (6 miles) away, to seek shelter on the other side. "Everyone is abandoning their homes. They shot at everyone."COORDINATED ATTACKSAbdul Jurabayev, a 40-year-old beekeeper, pointed at a jumble of charred ruins, with only one wall intact. "This is where we lived," he said.Locals struggled to understand how their sleepy town in the heart of Central Asia exploded into bloodletting on June 10 when attackers torched houses and fired on those trying to flee.The U.N. human rights office said this week it believed the violence began with five coordinated attacks, but did not say who it thought was behind them.The interim government, which came to power after a revolt in April, has accused deposed president Kurmanbek Bakiyev of stoking the violence and played down the ethnic component behind it. Bakiyev, a Kyrgyz, has denied any involvement."We want to firmly tell people in Kyrgyzstan there is no hatred between ethnic groups in this awful tragedy," the interim government said in a statement. "We saw that criminals killed and pillaged people regardless of their ethnic background."Many locals reported seeing men in balaclavas firing on people in drive-by attacks and setting rows of houses on fire.Shops, petrol stations and cafes owned by Kyrgyz landlords that had scribbled "Kyrgyz" on the walls remained unharmed.The ethnic breakdown of the official death toll is not known. Locals said the real number was likely to be higher as many bodies were buried before being identified by families fearing further reprisals.Local Kyrgyz people say they do not believe ordinary Osh residents could have staged such attacks. Many accused the government in the capital Bishkek, separated from Osh by a chain of snowcapped mountains, of failing to prevent the bloodshed."It was all organised by someone," said Abdyvakhyt Nurbayev, an ethnic Kyrgyz member of the Osh city council."The interim government was unable to bring law and order. Special forces could not prevent it ... first of all the special forces must find the provocateurs."(Writing by Maria Golovnina; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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