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Refugee Crisis in Kyrgyzstan Emerges as Ethnic Violence Continues

June 17, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: And now to Central Asia, where political turbulence, ethnic violence and a refugee crisis have hit the nation of Kyrgyzstan.

Margaret Warner has that story.

MARGARET WARNER: The magnitude of a looming humanitarian disaster in Kyrgyzstan came more sharply into focus today. U.N. officials announced 400,000 people had fled the ethnic violence that began a week ago in this Central Asian country. That’s four times the previous estimate.

Most are minority Uzbeks. Some 300,000 are sheltering along the now-closed border with Uzbekistan, with food and water in short supply.

NABIJAN ABDURAKHMANOV, Kyrgyzstan (through translator): There are some people here who have lost everything, who lost their home and cars. They don’t even plan to come back. What would they do there, sleep on the ground?

MARGARET WARNER: Another 100,000 refugees made it into Uzbekistan, before the Uzbek government shut the door Monday. The violence they fled was centered in Osh, just three miles from the border. Entire blocks there were reduced to charred rubble. Witnesses reported roving mobs of young Kyrgyz men looting and torching Uzbek homes and businesses.

OLE SOLVANG, Human Rights Watch: Armed gangs were coming in. They were accompanied by what they call a BTR, an armed personnel carrier, with people in uniform sitting on top who were shooting at people. When the people fled, the armed gangs who were accompanying them looted the houses and set fire to them, and have basically destroyed the entire neighborhood.

MARGARET WARNER: The Kyrgyz government estimates more than 200 people were killed, with 1,900 wounded. But private estimates range much higher.

Kyrgyzstan and its four Asian neighbors, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, suddenly became independent when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Uzbeks make up just 15 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s population. While both ethnic Uzbeks and ethnic Kyrgyz are Muslim, tensions have flared before, including land riots in 1990.

The catalyst for this round of violence isn’t as clear. An interim government now headed by Roza Otunbayeva took power in a bloody coup in April. It accuses the former president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, of inciting the unrest to regain control.

The situation is being closely watched in Washington. Kyrgyzstan is home to a major U.S. air base at Manas in the north, critical to refueling ongoing operations in Afghanistan. The Kyrgyz government appealed to Russia to send in troops, but Moscow has so far demurred. For now, U.N. officials in the capital, Bishkek, say the situation in Osh is somewhat calmer, but still fragile.

MIROSLAV JENCA, United Nations representative: In general, there is a lot of tension, and it is still quite volatile. Humanitarian aid is coming there, but it is quite difficult to deliver the aid in a proper way to the people who are suffering.

MARGARET WARNER: But there are also some hopeful signs. Residents of Jalal-Abad, 25 miles north of Osh, held a peace and reconciliation ceremony today.