By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
BISHKEK/BUDAPEST (BosNewsLife)– New clashes in southern Kyrgyzstan have killed dozens of people and wounded more than 500 in the city of Osh, a little over two months after the uprising that toppled the Central Asian nation’s former government. The United States and Russia – both of which have military bases in Kyrgyzstan – and China are watching the situation with concern.
Angry crowds attack shops and torch cars, while men battle in the streets with guns and improvised weapons in Kyrgyzstan’s second largest city, Osh.
Authorities in Osh, a city of several hundred thousand people that is home to many ethnic Uzbeks, say that two days of violence have killed scores of people. More than 500 were injured, many of them wounded by gunshots or slashed with knives.
Kyrgyzstan’s interim government has declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew on Osh. Troops in armored vehicles are seen trying to keep order in the city, which was once the power base of Kyrgyzstan’s ex-president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev.
This week’s bloodshed is the worst since the uprising two months ago, in which 85 people died.
Kyrgyzstan’s interim leader, Roza Otunbayeva, is blaming forces opposed to her government for this week’s outbreak. She contends opposition elements fueled ethnic tensions between the country’s Uzbek and Kyrgyz communities in an effort to disrupt an upcoming referendum on limiting presidential powers.
Ethnic Uzbeks make up about one-seventh of Kyrgyzstan’s population, but are near a majority in Osh province, which borders Uzbekistan.
Otunbayeva has called for calm, speaking through an interpreter on Russia Today television. “The situation when various forces are trying to stoke old flames is of great concern to us. Their aim is to destabilize the situation in the republic ahead of the upcoming referendum. They seek to cancel the vote,” she said Friday, June 11.
“They are against government policies and they are trying to push the confrontation to the level of inter-ethnic relations, which are the most vulnerable. We have sent additional troops to stabilize the situation in Osh. We have called on locals to remain calm,” added Otunbayeva.
The United States, which has a large air base outside the Kyrgyz capital, and other members of the international community are concerned about the developments. From the U.S. base near Bishkek, Major Rickardo Bodden explained to reporters the facility’s importance to the international security force fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. “We are the last stop for people going to Afghanistan. We are the first stop where people are coming out of Afghanistan, to go back [to the United States] or to their respective bases.”
In a statement, the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek has said that American officials “are in close contact” with the Kyrgyz government and are urging “all sides to resolve their differences peacefully.”
Russia, which has its own military base in Kyrgyzstan, and China also are calling for calm.
Russian President Dmitri Medvedev was at a summit of regional leaders on Friday, June 11, in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, where he told reporters that Russia and the other countries in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization already discussed how they can provide further assistance.
“We want to see a stable administration in Bishkek based on the rule of law” Medvedev said and he promised to send “observers to monitor the Kyrgyz referendum on June 27.”
Analysts say ending the latest violence could be a crucial test for the new government’s ability to control the troubled country.
Officials of Kyrgyzstan’s Christian minority seeking more religious rights are concerned about tensions in the country. During previous violence several churches said they were “fasting in response to the situation.”
The church in Kyrgyzstan is small but growing, despite reports of persecution in the mainly Islamic nation of over five million people, where Christians comprise roughly 10 percent of the population, according to advocacy group Barnabas Fund. “Christians, especially those who have converted from Islam, face severe pressure and threats from family and local communities, particularly in the south.”
Forum 18, another rights group investigating reports of religious rights violations, said that under the Bakiyev administration limitations on “fundamental” religious freed increased “in both law and practice”.
Otunbayeva has pledged more freedoms, and to hold democratic, parliamentary elections in October.
Impoverished Kyrgyzstan was part of the Soviet Union and under Communist rule for decades, but gained independence when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991.