Monday, November 29, 1999

U.S. envoy urges probe into Kyrgyz killings

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The United States called on Friday for an international investigation into ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan, as its leader said the death toll could be 10 times higher than the official tally of 190.Roza Otunbayeva's interim administration and the United Nations say the bloodshed in clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, which has driven hundreds of thousands to flee their burned-out homes, began with planned and orchestrated attacks.U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake described the situation as a humanitarian crisis and urged the interim government of the Central Asian state, which hosts U.S. and Russian military bases, to act immediately to stop the killing.Blake was visiting refugee camps in neighbouring Uzbekistan as Otunbayeva travelled to the strife-torn south and pledged to rebuild the region to allow refugees to leave squalid camps and return home.The government, which assumed power after the president was overthrown in April, has struggled to restore order following clashes between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz around the ancient Silk Road city of Osh -- the worst violence in Kyrgyzstan in two decades.Around 400,000 refugees, mainly women and children, are crammed into huts and makeshift camps on either side of the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border on the sun-scorched plains of the Ferghana valley, many running out of food and water."We urge the provisional government of Kyrgyzstan to take immediate steps to stop the violence," Blake told reporters on the Uzbek side of the border. "A Kyrgyz investigation should be complemented by an international investigation."Otunbayeva landed in Osh, its streets lined with charred buildings, in a military helicopter to meet local leaders."We will rebuild the city of Osh no matter what, so people can return to their homes," the interim government quoted her as saying during the visit.The former Soviet republic has been rocked by unrest since the revolt in April toppled its president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev.The United States and Russia are worried that continued turmoil in Kyrgyzstan, which lies on a major drug trafficking route out of nearby Afghanistan, would offer a breeding ground for Islamist militancy in Central Asia.Blake praised the Uzbek authorities for their swift reaction to the refugee crisis. About 100,000 people are housed in camps on the Uzbek side of the border, which are more orderly and are receiving more aid than those stranded on the Kyrgyz side.In one camp, lined with rows of tents marked with the United Nations logo, dozens of women, many in tears, surrounded Blake, who was later due to fly to Kyrgyzstan."It is important to establish peace for your safe return," he told them through an interpreter.VIOLENCE "WAS PLANNED"Otunbayeva, whose government has not been formally elected, has accused Bakiyev of organising gangs of armed men to shoot at both Uzbeks and Kyrgyz to ignite ethnic violence in the south, Bakiyev's traditional stronghold.Both ethnic groups have suffered in the violence, which began on June 10, but witnesses say losses on the Uzbek side are considerably greater.The ethnic breakdown of the official death toll of over 190 people is not clear. In an interview with Russia's Kommersant daily published on Friday, Otunbayeva said it could be as high as around 1,900."To get the real number of losses (dead) ... I would multiply the official number by ten," she told Kommersant.In the city of Osh, its streets strewn with rubble and still echoing with occasional gunfire, Uzbek neighbourhoods have set up barricades separating them from Kyrgyz areas.Sporadic attacks have continued but major violence has subsided since Monday. Some locals started venturing out of their homes to pick through the wreckage.The government is keen to stick to its plan to hold a constitutional referendum on June 27.It also wants Britain to extradite Bakiyev's younger son, Maxim, who it says was arrested in southern England this week.Azimbek Beknazarov, deputy head of Kyrgyzstan's interim government, said the United States should push Britain to speed up the extradition process as part of its "war on terrorism"."If they don't give him up, the Kyrgyz public will question the point of having a NATO base (in Kyrgyzstan)," he said.Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, interviewed by the Wall Street Journal, warned Islamist extremists could grab power in Kyrgyzstan should the government fail to gain control."When people lose faith in the ability of the civil authorities to bring law and order and decide there is only one force that can do it, then we can end up with a Kyrgyzstan that would develop along the Afghan scenario, the Afghan scenario of the Taliban period," he said.(Additional reporting by Shavkat Rakhmatullayev in Andizhan, Olga Dzyubenko in Bishkek and Nastassia Astrasheuskaya in Moscow; writing by Maria Golovnina and Robin Paxton; editing by Andrew Roche)

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