Thousands flee ethnic bloodshed in Kyrgyzstan

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Tens of thousands of refugees fled raging ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan on Sunday as the fragile interim government gave shoot-to-kill orders against marauding gangs terrorizing the population.

Neighbouring Uzbekistan said it had hastily set up camps along the border to provide shelter for a crushing influx of more than 32,000 ethnic Uzbeks -- mostly women and children -- from its fellow former Soviet state.

Chaotic gunbattles between rival groups in southern Kyrgyzstan left 97 people dead and more than 1,200 injured in three days, prompting the embattled Kyrgyz government to extend emergency rule and beg Moscow for help.

Russia sent a squadron of paratroopers to protect its airbase in the central Asian nation, but declined to get involved in the unrest that has riven Kyrgyzstan since President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted in April.

Interim President Roza Otunbayeva's provisional government decreed late Saturday that lethal force would now be authorised to protect civilians, amid growing calls from foreign leaders and aid groups to end the clashes.

The country is also home to a US airbase outside the capital Bishkek that is vital to its operations in Afghanistan.

"If we do not take opportune and effective measures the unrest could become much more serious and descend into a regional conflict," it said.

Authorities sent five planes of soldiers from the capital Bishkek to Jalalabad, in an attempt to restore order there, government radio reported Sunday.

It tightened a state of emergency to a 24-hour curfew in the southern Osh region, where the violence erupted Thursday when brawls between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks flared into running street battles across Osh city.

Authorities also extended the emergency rule Sunday across the country's entire southern Jalalabad region as heavy fighting spread there from neighbouring Osh, officials said.

Fears of a humanitarian crisis increased as Uzbekistan for the first time revealed how many displaced people it had allowed to cross the border, officially sealed before Sunday.

"In the whole of the Andijan region, 32,000 adult refugees have been registered," Abror Kosimov, the head of the regional emergency services, told AFP, adding that the number of child refugees was in the thousands.

Uzbekistan has voiced "extreme alarm" over the situation, calling it an organized bid to inflame ethnic tensions.

Panicked residents described ongoing violence and chaos in Kyrgyzstan's southern regions, where the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had warned of a growing humanitarian crisis.

"The authorities are not doing anything to stabilize the situation.... We are not even able to collect bodies from the streets," Ruslan, an Osh resident who preferred not to give his surname, said by telephone.

"The truth and the enormity of the tragedy cannot be hidden. The city centre is under the control of bandits."

In Jalalabad, where the worst of the fighting now appears to be centered, local resident Sergei Kim, described gunbattles throughout the city.

"There are shoot-outs going on in the streets and many people. A gang is moving in the direction of the university," he said.

Smoke hung over the city as fires raged in several buildings, another local resident, journalist Zhalil Saparov, told AFP.

Amnesty International called on authorities to protect ethnic Uzbeks, saying targeted during the violence.

"Things are getting worse and worse by the hour," said Severine Chappaz, the deputy head of the ICRC mission in Kyrgyzstan.

The provisional government has struggled to impose order since coming to power during deadly riots that ousted Bakiyev and left dozens of people dead.

Bakiyev, exiled in Belarus, himself denied any link to the violence roiling the south, slamming the suggestion as a "shameless lie."

Since April's uprising, foreign leaders have warned of the risk of civil war in the strategic state, which hosts both US and Russian military bases.

A Russian military source told the Interfax news agency that three Russian military planes carrying paratroopers landed at the Kant base near Bishkek Sunday to "ensure the security of Russian troops and their family members."

© 2010 AFP

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