Monday, November 29, 1999

Tension grips Kyrgyz south ahead of referendum

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A bitter standoff between fearful Uzbek and Kyrgyz neighbourhoods gripped Kyrgyzstan's southern city of Osh on Thursday after the worst ethnic violence in the Central Asian nation in 20 years.In Osh, the scene of most clashes, Uzbek neighbourhoods have barricaded themselves for fear of further violence, setting up unofficial demarcation lines separating them from Kyrgyz parts.Several people were attacked on Thursday after crossing into the Kyrgyz side to visit a hospital, observers on the ground said.Sporadic gunfire echoed around Osh's burned-out streets."It's extremely tense. It's highly flammable. Uzbeks and Kyrgyz are completely separated," Ole Solvang, an observer from Human Rights Watch, said during a visit to Osh.At least 191 people have been killed since June 10 in south Kyrgyzstan in ethnic clashes between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz. The government says the death toll could be several times higher.Home to U.S. and Russian air bases, strategic Kyrgyzstan has been turbulent since a revolt in April toppled its president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, and brought an interim government to power.Worries about renewed violence persist ahead of a June 27 referendum. The new leadership, which has not been formally elected, needs the vote in order to entrench its rule and has been broadcasting frequent advertisements on local television.The army set up check points around Osh but its overall security presence was low. Bands of men in T-shirts armed with AK-47s patrolled the streets but it was unclear who they were.Up to 100,000 people have fled and set up camps on the nearby Uzbek border, many lacking water and food."We no longer have any trust left for the Kyrgyz," Mavlyuda Abdrakhmanova, a 43-year-old woman, said in a refugee camp.Kyrgyzstan, its cash-strapped government operating a small and under-equipped army, said volatility could still spread."We cannot say that everything has been contained and stopped," Alik Orozov, secretary of the Security Council, told reporters. "There are forces out there that have yet to be defeated. To explode the situation in Bishkek you don't need an army. A band of 15-20 militants (is enough)."The government issued a decree saying it would only cancel the referendum if the entire country were in a state of emergency, or if a state of emergency were to be enforced in regions containing more than half of the total electorate."This means the referendum will go ahead," said interim government spokesman Farid Niyazov.TURMOILRussia 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.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.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 part of the Soviet Union -- has refused to intervene this time, describing it as a domestic Kyrgyz issue.A Russian-dominated regional security bloc said it would instead send advisors to help avert further unrest.Islamist 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 are various extremist organisations," United Nations Special Envoy Miroslav Jenca told Reuters in an interview. "And of course in these circumstances they are finding a fertile ground to fulfill their plans."(For more news on Reuters India, click

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