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OSH, Kyrgyzstan (Reuters) - At least 46 people were killed on Friday when ethnic conflict flared in Kyrgyzstan's second-largest city Osh, the worst outbreak of violence in the Central Asian state since the president was overthrown in April.
The interim government in Kyrgyzstan, which hosts U.S. and Russian military bases, declared a state of emergency in Osh and several local rural districts after hundreds of youths battled with guns and steel bars, setting shops ablaze in the city.
A spokeswoman for the Kyrgyz Health Ministry said 646 people had been injured, 419 of whom were in hospital.
A Reuters correspondent said an Uzbek neighbourhood, Cheryomushki, was ablaze. She said she had seen clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, many people building barricades and a crowd setting fire to two large restaurants and a supermarket.
The government, led by Roza Otunbayeva, sent troops and armoured vehicles to quell gangs roaming the streets with sticks, stones and petrol bombs after a night of violence.
"Regrettably for us, we're clearly talking about a stand-off between two ethnicities. We need (to muster) forces and means to stop and calm these people down, and this is what we are doing right now," Otunbayeva told reporters in the capital Bishkek.
Otunbayeva said crowds of "weird and suspicious-looking people" were streaming to Osh "from all directions." She did not mention their ethnicity. Political tensions between the south and the north exist alongside ethnic and clan rivalries.
Government spokesman Farid Niyazov told Reuters overnight on Friday that the troops "were having a hard time trying to control the situation, they are not succeeding."
Skirmishes were also happening in the capital Bishkek, some 300 km from Osh, he said by telephone.
A Reuters witness saw around 50 unarmed men, many apparently intoxicated, near Bishkek parliament shouting at policemen.
The European Union called on Otunbayeva's government "to restore public order with lawful means," its high representative for foreign affairs, Catherine Ashton, said in a statement.
Europe's main democracy watchdog, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which neighbouring Kazakhstan currently chairs, warned in a statement that the violence shows the country "remains far from stable."
The violence occurred in the southern power base of former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, deposed in April by a popular revolt. Bakiyev's supporters briefly seized government buildings in the south on May 13, defying central authorities in Bishkek.
Renewed turmoil in the impoverished former Soviet republic will fuel concern among regional players Russia, China, and the United States which uses its air base in the north -- about 300 km from Osh -- as an Afghan supply route.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told a regional security summit in the Uzbek capital Tashkent that Moscow wanted a swift end to the unrest. Chinese leader Hu Jintao echoed him, saying, "China continues to help Kyrgyzstan as much as it can."
Medvedev said later the Moscow-led security pact of former Soviet states, known as the ODKB, could not intervene in Kyrgyzstan because this conflict was an internal affair.
Officials said the riots were sparked by a fight, possibly in a casino, which rapidly escalated into ethnic clashes.
Kyrgyzstan, which won independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, has been in turmoil since the revolt that toppled Bakiyev on April 7, kindling fears of civil war.
Ethnic unrest between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks is a concern in the Fergana valley where Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan meet. Hundreds of people were killed in ethnic clashes near Osh, a city of over 200,000, in 1990.
On May 19, two people were killed and 74 wounded in clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the city of Jalalabad. On the same day, Otunbayeva said she would rule the country until the end of 2011, scrapping plans for presidential polls in October.
Of Kyrgyzstan's 5.3 million population, ethnic Kyrgyz make up 69.6 percent, Uzbeks 14.5 percent and Russians 8.4 percent.
In the south, Uzbeks comprise about 40 percent of the 1 million population in the Jalalabad region and about 50 percent in the neighbouring region of Osh.
Additional reporting by Olga Dzyubenko in Bishkek, Denis Dyomkin in Tashkent, David Brunnstrom in Brussels; Writing by Robin Paxton in Almaty and Dmitry Solovyov and Amie Ferris-Rotman in Moscow; editing by Elizabeth Fullerton