Kyrgyz troops patrolled the burned-out streets of the southern city of Osh on Wednesday trying to maintain a fragile peace between feuding ethnic groups after days of fierce fighting.
Lying at the heart of Central Asia’s most flammable and ethnically divided corners, mainly Muslim Kyrgyzstan has been on edge since a violent revolt in April toppled its president and brought an interim government to power.
Clashes between its main ethnic groups, Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, erupted in the south on June 10 and escalated into the deadliest violence the former Soviet republic has seen in 20 years.
The United States and Russia, jostling for influence over strategic Central Asia, have watched the events with unease as both operate military air bases in the volatile nation.
At least 179 people have been killed, mainly in Osh, a low-rise city of mud-brick houses and crumbling Soviet-era architecture near the Uzbek border.
The violence has subsided in the past two days, but gunfire was still heard in Osh overnight, though it was unclear who was shooting at whom, 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 passers-by, a giant statue of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin towering quietly over a city square.
Troops patrolled the area in armoured personnel carriers.
A Kyrgyz soldier at one checkpoint, asked to assess the security situation, said: “Everything is relative.”
Uzbeks and Kyrgyz have blamed the attacks on each other. The provisional government has accused deposed president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, an ethnic Kyrgyz, of instigating the violence, but Bakiyev, in exile in Belarus, has denied any involvement.
The violence prompted 100 000 refugees to flee into Uzbekistan, most facing severe water and food shortages.
The United Nations has urged Kyrgyzstan to take decisive action to end ethnic killing.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said the violence appeared to have begun with five coordinated attacks by men carrying guns and wearing balaclavas.
Hundreds of Uzbek refugees were stranded on the Uzbek border, unable to cross after Uzbekistan, struggling with the influx, partially sealed the frontier on Monday.
Many ethnic Kyrgyz families have fled to other parts of the country but their numbers were unclear.
The interim government has warned its people more violence could occur in the capital Bishkek but said it had enough forces to fend off any attacks.
The United States said Assistant Secretary Robert Blake would go to Bishkek on Friday to consult with Kyrgyz officials. – Reuters