Monday, November 29, 1999

Kyrgyzstan says to hold referendum despite unrest

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Kyrgyzstan pledged on Thursday to stick to its plans to hold a constitutional referendum this month despite security concerns following the worst ethnic violence in the strategic Central Asian nation in 20 years.The United Nations warned that continued turmoil in Kyrgyzstan would offer a breeding ground for Islamist militancy in Central Asia, an ex-Soviet region lying on a major drug trafficking route out of nearby Afghanistan.Home to U.S. and Russian air bases, Kyrgyzstan has been turbulent since a revolt in April toppled its president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, and brought an interim government to power.At least 191 people have been killed since June 10 in Kyrgyzstan's south in an outburst of ethnic fighting between its two main ethnic groups, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, though some observers in the region put the toll at closer to 1,000.The violence has subsided in the last two days but up to 100,000 people have fled their homes and set up camps in the Ferghana valley, where Kyrgyzstan borders Uzbekistan.But worries about security persist ahead of the June 27 referendum on the country's future which, together with the refugee exodus, add a further challenge to the new Kyrgyz authorities' ability to organise the vote.The new leadership, which has not been formally elected, said it is determined to hold the vote, which it needs in order to entrench its rule and press ahead with a reform plan."The situation in Osh is stabilising. We have enough forces," Azimbek Beknazarov, an interim deputy premier, told reporters in the capital Bishkek."We have to hold (the referendum) and enter a legal field. We need this like air. Everyone who calls themselves a Kyrgyz citizen must vote in the referendum."Russia and the West fear that instability in the ex-Soviet republic could produce a safe haven for international militants or reinforce Central Asia's own, home-grown Islamist groups.U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke to interim leader Roza Otunbayeva by telephone on Thursday to discuss the conflict, the Kyrgyz interim government said in a statement.Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake, the top U.S. official for Central Asia, is due to visit Bishkek on Friday. Otunbayeva earlier spoke to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.Despite Kyrgyzstan's pleas, Moscow -- which sent troops to Kyrgyzstan in 1990 to quell a similar conflict, when Central Asia was still part of the Soviet Union -- has refused to intervene this time, describing it as a domestic Kyrgyz issue.HUMANITARIAN AIDIslamist extremism is rare in Central Asia, a secular region ruled from Moscow until the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991.But deepening problems such as poverty, illiteracy and people's growing frustration with their governments have made them more susceptible to Islamist ideas, emboldening radical groups to gain strength in Central Asia."There is a threat of extremism in the Ferghana valley and, more broadly, in Central Asia as a whole, in the sense that Central Asia borders Afghanistan," United Nations Special Envoy Miroslav Jenca told Reuters in an interview late on Wednesday."There are various extremist organisations ... And of course in these circumstances they are finding a fertile ground to fulfil their plans."He added: "If they (elections) are organised incorrectly then of course that would lead to big problems. The government has to assess whether it can organise the referendum in a way that would be legitimate, so it could be recognised."Humanitarian aid has been flowing to the south but observers say it is not reaching many neighbourhoods that have barricaded themselves in for fear of further violence.(Writing by Maria Golovnina; Editing by Jon Boyle)

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