Kyrgyzstan makes arrests, clears barricades after violence

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Kyrgyzstan arrested 20 people over their suspected role in ethnic clashes, officials said Sunday, as the military cleared makeshift barricades from Uzbek areas in the ravaged city of Osh.

The removal of the barricades happened without incident, despite fears it could reignite the violence in the south of the Central Asian country that has left up to 2,000 dead and forced 400,000 from their homes.

"All of the barricades have been lifted in the centre of the city. Main roads and streets are open to traffic," a police spokesman told AFP after the army moved in following a 6:00 pm (1200 GMT) deadline for them to be removed.

"Only a few barricades on small streets, dead ends and on the outskirts of the city remain."

The spokesman said police would not use force to remove the remaining barricades in Osh, one of the cities worst hit by the bloodshed, because "that would do nothing but inflame the situation".

Uzbek residents in some areas even helped pull down the roadblocks, quelling fears of fresh outbreaks of last week's deadly inter-ethnic clashes between the majority Kyrgyz and minority Uzbek populations.

Armoured vehicles pushed aside burnt-out cars, concrete pillars and felled trees that were set up outside Uzbek districts during the violence.

"Of course we are afraid. But we will not put the barricades back if it stays calm. Life must return to normal at some point," said 64-year-old resident Salizhan Numanzhanov, whose brother was killed in the unrest.

Tensions had not evaporated however, and some residents said they feared the unrest would return.

In Osh "a special operation" was launched Sunday to seize weapons that have not been handed in voluntarily by its residents, interior ministry spokesman Bakit Seitov told journalists.

Investigators also launched 90 enquiries for murder, arson and kidnappings, he said. "Twenty people suspected of crimes in the incidents in Osh have been arrested," said Seitov.

Seitov said the situation in the country including the capital Bishkek was "relatively calm". But he added that in Bishkek "provocative rumours are being spread about possible mass riots".

"Many refugees" were also returning to Kyrgyzstan from neighbouring Uzbekistan where they fled as the south was engulfed in inter-ethnic violence.

Kyrgyzstan's authorities have accused former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was ousted in violent street protests in April, of hiring "provocateurs" to instigate the riots. Bakiyev has denied any involvement.

Kyrgyzstan's interim government said Saturday it was extending a state of emergency in Osh and nearby areas to June 25. Imposed on June 11, the state of emergency had been due to expire on Sunday.

Interim leader Roza Otunbayeva has acknowledged that the death toll from the clashes was probably 2,000 -- 10 times the official estimate.

The riots were the worst inter-ethnic clashes to hit the impoverished ex-Soviet state since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Victims of the unrest have told AFP that the violence was a brutal and orchestrated campaign by armed Kyrgyz militias targeting Uzbeks, who make up 14 percent of Kyrgyzstan's population of 5.3 million.

Aid agencies have said up to a million people may have been affected by the violence, including 100,000 who fled to neighbouring Uzbekistan and 300,000 displaced internally.

The United Nations has stepped up aid to the region after issuing an urgent appeal for humanitarian assistance, wiuth the first UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) flight arriving in Osh on Sunday and another due Monday.

The interim government has promised to investigate the causes of the unrest, but the United States has called for an independent international probe into the clashes.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov discussed their "shared concern over the recent violence and continuing inter-ethnic tensions" in Kyrgyzstan, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said Sunday.

Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday urged all ethnic communities in Kyrgyzstan "to renounce provocation and violence" as he called for peace and security to be rapidly restored in the country.

© 2010 AFP

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