OSH, Kyrgyzstan – Mobs of rioters slaughtered Uzbeks and burned their homes and businesses in Kyrgyzstan’s worst ethnic violence in decades, sending more than 75,000 members of the ethnic minority fleeing the country in attacks that appeared aimed at undermining the Central Asian nation’s interim government.
More than 100 people were killed in southern Kyrgyzstan and more than 1,200 wounded in days of attacks, according to government estimates Sunday. The true toll may be much higher.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said its delegates witnessed about 100 bodies being buried in just one cemetery, and noted that the official toll is unlikely to include bodies still lying in the streets.
Fires set by rioters raged across Osh, the second-largest city in Kyrgyzstan, as triumphant crowds of ethnic-majority Kyrgyz men took control. Police or military troops were nowhere to be seen in the city of 250,000, where food was scarce after widespread looting and the few Uzbeks still left barricaded themselves in their neighborhoods.
The rampages spread quickly to Jalal-Abad, another major southern city 45 miles from Osh, and its neighboring villages, as mobs methodically set Uzbek houses, stores and cafes on fire. Rioters seized an armored vehicle and automatic weapons at a local military unit and attacked police stations around the region trying to get more firearms.
Some refugees were fired on as they fled to Uzbekistan. They were mostly elderly people, women and children, with younger men staying behind to defend their property.
Many of the more than 75,000 refugees arrived with gunshot wounds, the Uzbekistan Emergencies Ministry said, according to Russian reports.
The United States, Russia and the U.N. chief all expressed alarm about the scale of the violence and discussed how to help the refugees. The U.S. and Russia both have military bases in northern Kyrgyzstan, away from the rioting; Russia sent in an extra battalion to protect its air base.
Kyrgyz residents interviewed by AP Television News in Osh blamed Uzbeks for starting the rioting by attacking students and Kyrgyz women. Ethnic Kyrgyz from neighboring villages then streamed into the city to strike back, they said.
But Maksat Zheinbekov, the acting mayor of Jalal-Abad, told the AP that the true instigators were supporters of ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev who attacked both Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, the ethnic majority, to incite broader ethnic violence.