Aid reaches desperate refugees in Kyrgyz crisis

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Foreign aid Thursday started reaching hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees who fled deadly clashes in Kyrgyzstan.

With estimates of several hundred dead from the clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks, UN and Red Cross agencies said there was now an "immense" humanitarian crisis.

There are at least 400,000 refugees or displaced, according to UN estimates, inside Uzbekistan or stuck on the Kyrgyzstan side of the border who need food, water and medical supplies.

Between 75,000 and 100,000 people were estimated to have taken refuge in Uzbekistan, not counting children, while about 300,000 people were estimated to have been internally displaced, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs told AFP.

Just inside the Uzbekistan border, refugees trickled into a camp where UN agencies UNHCR and UNICEF erected hundreds of white and green tents overnight, an AFP correspondent said.

Fewer than 1,000 refugees were at the camp, where aid workers were handing out clothing and blankets, but thousands more were expected to eventually be brought from temporary refugee centres set up by the Uzbek government.

Refugees said they were in desperate need of supplies after fleeing from the five days of clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks that rocked Kyrgyzstan in the past week, killing at least 191 people according to the latest government toll.

"First of all we need clothes and medical supplies, especially for the children, because when we fled our homes we just ran away and couldn't take anything with us," Halima Otajonova, a 41-year-old mother of two, said at a refugee centre at a stadium in the Uzbek town of Khanabad.

"Some of us even ran away in bare feet, without shoes."

Attacks have died down in recent days in Osh and Jalalabad, the Kyrgyz cities at the centre of the fighting.

Kyrgyz interim deputy prime minister Azimbek Beknazarov said that "life is slowly returning to normal" in Osh.

A Russian-led security group, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), said it would not deploy peacekeepers to Kyrgyzstan.

"We are looking at the question of sending specialists to the republic who know how to plan and prepare operations to prevent mass disorders.... But there is no question of sending peacekeepers to Kyrgyzstan," CSTO secretary general Nikolai Bordyuzha told the Interfax news agency.

With the violence subsiding, focus was turning to the enormous humanitarian crisis facing the region.

Two planes carrying hundreds of tents supplied by UNHCR have arrived in Uzbekistan and four more were due by the end of the week, officials said.

A planeload of relief supplies from the International Committee of the Red Cross including blankets, tarpaulins, cooking utensils and soap also landed in southern Kyrgyzstan and another in eastern Uzbekistan.

"It's an immense crisis," said Severine Chappaz, the ICRC deputy head in Kyrgyzstan, in a statement.

The insecurity and fear and shortages of basic necessities such as food, water, shelter and medicine were putting a "tremendous strain" on efforts to help the displaced in both Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, the ICRC said.

Kyrgyz health ministry official Dinara Sagynbayeva said 191 people were killed in the violence with 1,971 wounded.

Amid fears the death toll could be much higher, the ICRC said that according to its workers "several hundred people" had been killed in the fighting.

The mayor of Osh, Melisbek Myrzakmatov, told AFP the death toll "will be two or three times the official number. Time will tell if it is more on one side or the other. But it will not be in the thousands."

Refugees on both sides of the border have recounted horrific stories of torture and rape at the hands of heavily armed Kyrgz mobs whom they accuse of conducting a brutal campaign to push ethnic Uzbeks out of Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyzstan's leaders have blamed the violence on ex-president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was ousted in protests in April. Bakiyev, who took refuge in Belarus, has denied the charges.

Officials have insisted the country will go ahead with plans to hold a June 27 referendum on a new constitution despite the violence.

"Kyrgyz citizens must actively participate in the referendum in order to quickly legitimise the government," said Beknazarov, the deputy prime minister.

"The important thing now is that the referendum takes place," he said.

The riots were the worst inter-ethnic clashes to hit the impoverished Central Asian state since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Uzbeks make up 14 percent of Kyrgyzstan's population of 5.3 million.

© 2010 AFP

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