BISHKEK (Reuters) - Ethnic violence broke out on the outskirts of the Kyrgyz capital on Monday, leaving five people dead and challenging the interim government’s efforts to restore order after an uprising overthrew the president.
The interim government has promised fresh elections and reforms but has struggled to exert control over the Central Asian state after a revolt on April 7 ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and disrupted U.S. military flights to Afghanistan.
It sent troops and armoured vehicles to stem the violence near Bishkek, in which witnesses said ethnic Kyrgyz looted ethnic Russian and Meskhetian Turkish homes in Mayevka village. In Jalalabad, a southern city in Bakiyev’s tribal heartland, loyalists of the ousted president installed a pro-Bakiyev governor after seizing a regional government office, widening a stand-off with the self-proclaimed government in Bishkek.
“We will restore Bakiyev’s rule,” the pro-Bakiyev governor, Faizulla Rakhmanov, told Reuters. “Bakiyev... will come back.”
Led by ex-foreign minister Roza Otunbayeva, the interim government has played down the unrest, blaming it on thugs trying to exploit the unrest to grab property illegally.
“We will not allow anyone to disturb peace and multi-ethnic accord in the country,” it said in a statement. “The authorities will take tough measures to prevent all unlawful actions.”
The health ministry said two people died in the clashes and 16 were injured. Edil Baisalov, an interim government official, told Reuters that five people had died.
The Interior Ministry said its forces had arrested a number of rioters in a swoop operation in the suburbs after nightfall. Sirens could be heard throughout Bishkek after police said they deployed additional forces in the capital.
Any further lawlessness or resistance from Bakiyev loyalists would be a matter of concern to the United States, which suspended some military flights from its Kyrgyz air base earlier in the crisis, citing security concerns.
The interim government has yet to be recognised globally but both Washington and Moscow have endorsed the new rulers and offered assistance in rebuilding Kyrgyzstan’s shattered economy.
Seeking to consolidate power, the new administration pledged fast reforms on Monday to restore democracy as well as free parliamentary and presidential elections in about six months.
The violence took people by surprise in a country where ethnic clashes are rare. Kyrgyz make up 70 percent and Russians about 8 percent of the country’s 5.3 million population. Uzbeks, as well as Turks and other minorities, comprise the rest.
The riots in Bishkek erupted after crowds of angry men tried to grab land belonging to residents of villages predominantly populated by ethnic Russians and Meskhetian Turks.
Witnesses said rioters set police cars, houses and one police station on fire. One local household owner said villagers were abandoning their homes and fleeing the area.
Gunfire erupted after nightfall as groups of men, armed with heavy sticks, tried to break into houses.
Bakiyev sought refuge in neighbouring Kazakhstan last week, but was on the move again on Monday. The Kazakh foreign ministry said he had left the country for an unknown destination.
Writing by Maria Golovnina and Matt Robinson; additional reporting by Olga Dzyubenko, editing by Lin Noueihed