Hundreds Reported Killed In Kyrgyzstan Riots

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Tens of thousands of people are believed to have fled their homes in Osh in Kyrgyzstan, to escape the ethnic fighting that has left most of the southern city in smoldering ruins. Hundreds are reported killed, neighboring Uzbekistan has closed its border to limit the flood of refugees, and thousands of women, children and the elderly are said to be stranded on the wrong side of the barbed wire.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris. Humanitarian aid is now trickling in for thousands of refugees fleeing ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz government, which was fragile even before this crisis, says outside help is not arriving quickly enough.

After days of violence, southern Kyrgyzstan is generally calmer, but it seems the targeting of minority Uzbeks has changed the ethnic landscape of an entire region. NPR's David Greene reports from the city of Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan.

DAVID GREENE: One of the toughest parts of this crisis has been the information flow. Nobody knows how many ethnic Uzbeks have fled across the border from Kyrgyzstan into neighboring Uzbekistan. Andrea Berg of Human Rights Watch says as many as 35,000 people have been registered at makeshift camps.

BLOCK: But they seem to only register adults. So the question is how many children are there.

GREENE: On the Kyrgyz side of the border, Berg said those trying to cross remain vulnerable. As recently as yesterday, she said...

BLOCK: Jeeps would drive by the crowds at the border and, like, randomly shoot at them.

GREENE: No one knows how long this humanitarian crisis will last. And another question is why this all happened, why, on Thursday night, Kyrgyz residents began a rampage, shooting and attacking their ethnic Uzbek neighbors.

There is a history of ethnic strife in this region. In the 1920s, Joseph Stalin drew some bizarre borders, and that had the effect of creating ethnic rivalries. But the theory gaining momentum here is that politics mixed with ethnic tensions. There were instigators out there who thought flaming old passions could bring a fragile government to its knees. Human Rights Watch's Andrea Berg said all eyes are on the new government to see if they can go forward with a constitutional referendum in a few weeks.

BLOCK: On the one hand, if the interim government now gives in and says okay, we will cancel the referendum, that would mean that basically, these forces have got what they wanted. But how could you organize such a referendum with several thousand people in refugee camps? Like, how would you guarantee that they could vote?

GREENE: Such is the challenge for Rosa Otunbayeva. She emerged in April as Kyrgyzstan's new hope after the previous president was swept away in a bloody coup. Today, in the capital, Bishkek, she said voters will go to the polls June 27th to approve a new constitution.

P: (Speaking foreign language).

GREENE: And yet she seemed unable to explain exactly how the country will be ready. She was still talking about her request for Russian peacekeepers, an idea the Kremlin has all but rejected.

P: (Speaking foreign language).

By early evening today, I have flown from the capital in the north to the city of Osh in the south for a look at the destruction. Osh's airport was chaotic. Arriving passengers walked past the aid that's finally arriving in the form of hundreds of boxes of medicine. Groups of armed men in plain clothes were wandering around.

As we drove into Osh after a 6 p.m. curfew, the streets were deserted and still. They were lined with burnt, overturned cars and looted stores. The quiet gave me a chance to ask our driver, Mamosali Shamerbekov(ph), why our Jeep was riddled with bullets, including one that clearly went through the driver's headrest in front of me.

BLOCK: (Speaking foreign language).

GREENE: Shamerbekov's an ethnic Kyrgyz official in the local government, and as the violence erupted last week, he was touring an Uzbek village. At the wheel was an Uzbek colleague. Residents fired on the vehicle and hit the driver.

BLOCK: (Speaking foreign language).

GREENE: I immediately left the car, he said, and I told them this driver is Uzbek, and you're Uzbek. Why you shot, I don't understand. They were in shock and said what should we do? I said take him to the hospital. And so that's where he is, in poor condition, he told me. He added: May God let him recover from this. A lot of people were saying the same prayer for an entire region.

David Greene, NPR News, Osh, Kyrgyzstan.

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