Fresh violence in Kyrgyzstan as humanitarian crisis grows

OSH, Kyrgyzstan (AFP) – Fresh violence including artillery fire flared in Kyrgyzstan Tuesday as thousands desperate to flee ethnic clashes pleaded in vain to pass through the sealed border into Uzbekistan.

Despite earlier claims from the country's government that clashes were "on the wane," an AFP reporter witnessed more than a dozen rounds of artillery fire lobbed over the centre of the southern city of Osh and heard numerous explosions.

An ethnic Uzbek mother holds her son as they wait at the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border outside a village of Suratash some 15 km to the south of Osh. AFP photo

It was not immediately clear from where the rounds were fired or where they hit. The artillery fire continued for about 45 minutes and was followed by the sounds of sporadic gunfire and armoured vehicles rolling through the city.

The continued violence came as Kyrgyzstan's authorities withdrew a request for foreign peacekeepers, saying unrest between ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz around the cities of Jalalabad and Osh was abating after clashes that claimed at least 178 lives.

The humanitarian crisis engulfing the country meanwhile continued to grow as refugees started to reveal the full horror of atrocities -- including rape and torture -- committed in the five days of fighting.

Several thousand ethnic Uzbeks were waiting in desperate conditions to cross the border into Uzbekistan, following the Uzbek authorities' decision to close the frontier after accepting tens of thousands of ethnic Uzbek refugees.

Babies wailed under the beating sun, their mothers unable to evacuate them out of the country to the relative safety of Uzbekistan, an AFP correspondent at the barbed wire border post reported.

One woman in the crowd pleaded: "What do we have to do to get out of here?"

The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesman Andrej Mahecic said 200,000 people had been displaced within the country in addition to the 75,000 who sought safety in Uzbekistan.

"The humanitarian situation in the conflict zone is worsening. There are many refugees in need of help and attention," said Kazakh diplomat Zhanibek Karibzhanov, the special envoy of the transatlantic OSCE security group.

Among those who made it across the border into Uzbekistan were three sisters, aged between 16 and 23, who had been raped in front of each other by a mob of ethnic Kyrgyz men and were rendered speechless, said Mukaddas Majidova, a doctor in the Uzbek town of Khoja-Obod.

"These girls were raped recently and by a lot of men and for several hours, according to their injuries," she told AFP. Another man was tortured with scalding water and knife wounds to the neck.

The fighting turned much of the southern cities of Osh and Jalalabad into smoking wrecks and raised fears over the future viability of the country of 5.3 million where Uzbeks make up 14 percent of the population.

Osh has now essentially been split along ethnic lines, with ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz hunkering down in their own districts and not venturing outside.

But the leader of the interim government that came to power when president Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted in April appeared to drop a demand for foreign peacekeepers to calm the situation.

"There is not a need to send peacekeeping forces," interim leader Roza Otunbayeva told a news conference.

"We hope to deal with this situation with our own forces," she added, saying the clashes were now "on the wane".

According to the latest toll from the Kyrgyz health ministry, 178 people have been killed in the violence in Osh and Jalalabad and 1,866 wounded.

However the International Committee of the Red Cross said in a statement that the toll was likely considerably higher and that "several hundred people have been killed in the fighting."

Both the United States and Russia maintain vital military facilities in Kyrgyzstan, an ex-Soviet republic of pivotal strategic importance in the volatile Central Asia region, notably to NATO operations in Afghanistan.

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