UN agencies fear escalation in Kyrgyz 'ethnic tinderbox'

15th June 2010, Comments 0 comments

UN agencies said Tuesday they feared an escalation in fighting in Kyrgyzstan, warning of an "ethnic tinderbox" in the region after an estimated 275,000 people fled their homes in less than a week.

UN relief agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) stepped up deliveries of medical aid, food and shelter to Kyrgyzstan and neighbouring Uzbekistan as supplies in some areas were running low.

The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it would begin airlifting some 240 tonnes of shelter equipment to Uzbekistan on Wednesday from a warehouse in Dubai.

"We are alarmed by the rapid escalation of violence since 10 June in southern Kyrgyzstan, which has left scores of people dead and led to the displacement of an estimated 200,000 people within the country in addition to 75,000 who have sought safety in Uzbekistan," said UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic.

Kyrgyzstan's interim leader Roza Otunbayeva said Tuesday that the inter-ethnic clashes that claimed 170 lives were already "on the wane".

Aid workers reported ongoing tensions and sporadic fighting in the Kyrgyz cities of Osh and Jalalabad, close to the Uzbek border.

"We fear that unless peace and order is restored swiftly more people could be displaced as they flee to the countryside or try to cross the border to Uzbekistan," Mahecic told journalists.

The office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said its staff had gathered evidence from witnesses suggesting that the violence was deliberately triggered by armed men in five simultaneous attacks in Osh last Thursday.

"We believe this is an extremely dangerous situation given the ethnic patchwork in this part of Kyrgyzstan, it's a highly complex ethnic mix there with some 80 ethnic groups just in the Osh region," said spokesman Rupert Colville.

"It has been known for many years that this region is a potential ethnic tinderbox, for that reason it's essential that the authorities act firmly to halt the fighting."

"We have strong indications that this event was not a spontaneous interethnic clash, we have some indications that it was to some degree orchestrated, targeted and well planned," Colville added.

The ICRC said a flight carrying high energy biscuits for about 20,000 people was due to arrive in Osh on Tuesday, while aid workers also had access to food supplies from a local World Food Programme warehouse.

However, ICRC spokeswoman Anna Nelson said staff who reached a hospital in Jalalabad on Tuesday found less seriously wounded people than they expected, and evacuated 17 patients to the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek.

"Today the situation in the south remains tense," Nelson said.

Some relief agencies had difficulty reaching people in need due to the insecurity.

"It has been difficult so far to start up full fledged distribution of food to people affected, so we're calling for security of access," said WFP spokeswoman Emilia Casella.

The United Nations expects to launch an emergency appeal for aid for the displaced and refugees by the end of the week, said Elisabeth Byrs, a spokeswoman for the UN humanitarian coordination office (OCHA).

© 2010 AFP

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