JALALABAD, Kyrgyzstan (Reuters) - A state of emergency was declared in Jalalabad on Wednesday after two people died and 74 were injured in clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan, a Central Asian ethnic tinderbox.
Kyrgyzstan has been in turmoil since a popular revolt toppled President Kurmanbek Bakiyev on April 7, kindling big power fears of a civil war in the impoverished former Soviet republic, which hosts both U.S. and Russian military bases.
Any worsening of the clashes in the south, a cauldron of ethnic and tribal tension in the heart of Central Asia, would alarm both countries, which are vying for regional influence.
Kyrgyz special forces fired into the air to try to prevent thousands of Kyrgyz from storming an Uzbek-funded university in Jalalabad, the home region and power base of Bakiyev.
“We condemn all attempts to foment violence and sow the seeds of discord among our people, especially between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz,” acting President Roza Otunbayeva told reporters in the capital Bishkek. “We hope that common sense will prevail and that we shall be able to prevent a conflict.”
But in what could be a sign of growing instability, Otunbayeva’s government later said she would act as president until the end of 2011, after which she will be replaced.
Interim leaders had previously said a presidential election could take place sometime this year.
Otunbayeva’s government declared a state of emergency in Jalalabad and the adjoining Suzak district until June 1, and imposed a nightly curfew from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
Once the curfew took effect on Wednesday evening, the streets of Jalalabad were empty and the situation became calm and stable, local interim government official Zamir Sabirov told Reuters by telephone.
Kyrgyz protesters had gathered before to demand the arrest of local Uzbek leader Kadyrzhan Batyrov, who they said had called for the creation of an autonomous Uzbek district in Kyrgyzstan, and they pelted the University of the Peoples’ Friendship with stones.
A Reuters witness heard shots fired from inside the university and about 2,000 ethnic Uzbeks came out and shouted to the crowd of Kyrgyz: “We shall never give up our university.”
As night drew in after the curfew, Sabirov said around 250 armed Uzbeks remained inside the university and busloads of riot police were circling the streets, but there had been no outbreaks of violence.
The Health Ministry said two people had been killed and 74 injured. It was not clear who the victims were.
Despite the state of emergency, neighbouring Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry said it would reopen its border with Kyrgyzstan on May 20. It had been closed when turmoil broke out in April.
The border with Uzbekistan remains sealed.
After the university confrontation with the Uzbeks, thousands of Kyrgyz moved to the central square in Jalalabad.
A Reuters witness said groups of Uzbeks and Kyrgyz were arming themselves with sticks and clubs. In Uzbek areas, locals were gathering in groups of 100 to 200. Some Kyrgyz protesters wielded petrol bombs.
Of the 5.3 million population of Kyrgyzstan, ethnic Kyrgyz make up 69.6 percent, Uzbeks 14.5 percent and Russians 8.4 percent.
The mix is more even in the south. Uzbeks comprise about 40 percent of the 1 million population of the Jalalabad region and about 50 percent in the neighbouring region of Osh.
Jalalabad was the scene of two days of fierce clashes last week between supporters of Bakiyev and those of the interim government. At least two people were killed and dozens wounded.
Bakiyev fled to Belarus after he was ousted and the interim government said the clashes were a coup attempt by his backers.
When the Soviet Union fell apart two decades ago, at least 300 people were killed and thousands injured in clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks.
Additional reporting by Olga Dzyubenko in Bishkek; writing by Dmitry Solovyov; editing by Guy Faulconbridge, Conor Humphries, Amie Ferris-Rotman and Mark Heinrich