OSH, Kyrgyzstan (Reuters) - A group of ex-Soviet states Monday proposed sending helicopters and equipment to help Kyrgyzstan’s government stop ethnic violence that has killed at least 124 people, and suggested troops could follow.
The Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) met in Moscow to discuss how to halt rioting and clashes that have left parts of two cities in southern Kyrgyzstan in ruins and sent tens of thousands of Uzbeks fleeing for the border.
The threat of full-blown civil war has tested the capacity of the grouping, dominated by Russia but strained by rivalries, to deal with a disaster in one of its member states.
Reporting to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, CSTO Secretary-General Nikolai Bordyuzha said national security chiefs from the seven-nation bloc hammered out a proposal to help Kyrgyz authorities.
“They have enough forces today but they do not have enough equipment, helicopters, ground transport ... even fuel,” Bordyuzha said, according to Russian news agencies.
He said the proposal, to be submitted to the bloc’s heads of state, included help bringing those responsible for violence to justice, but said nothing about sending in troops.
Earlier, Bordyuzha said the CSTO had a peacekeeping contingent and rapid-reaction forces but cautioned that “one should think it over well before using these means.”
Medvedev hinted at more aggressive measures, saying he might call an emergency summit of the CSTO “if the situation worsens.”
“The atmosphere in Kyrgyzstan is intolerable; people have died and bloodshed continues, mass disorder on ethnic grounds,” he said. “This is extremely dangerous for this region.”
According to Russian news agencies, he said he had told Kyrgyzstan’s interim leader Roza Otunbayeva that “everything must be done to stop actions — within the law, but harshly.”
The interim government appealed to Russia at the weekend to send in troops. Moscow said it would consult with the CSTO, which includes Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan as well as Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan.
The clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbek residents in the cities of Osh and Jalalabad began late Thursday and escalated over the weekend. Witnesses said gangs with automatic rifles, iron bars and machetes set fire to houses and shot fleeing residents.
It was the worst ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan since 1990, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev sent troops into Osh after hundreds of people were killed in a dispute that started over land ownership.
The turmoil has fuelled concern in Russia, the United States and neighbour China. Washington uses an air base at Manas in the north of the ex-Soviet state, about 300 km (190 miles) from Osh, to supply forces in Afghanistan. Russia also has an air base.
The White House said U.S. officials had been in close contact with their Russian counterparts about the situation. The U.S. base was unaffected by the turmoil in the south.
Analysts say that if southern Kyrgyzstan, part of the Fergana Valley shared with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, descends into chaos, it could foster militant Islamism financed by drugs.
Kyrgyzstan’s interim government, which assumed power after president Kurmanbek Bakiyev was overthrown in April, has accused supporters of the ousted leader of stoking ethnic conflict — an allegation Bakiyev denied in a statement Sunday.
Speaking Monday in Belarus, where he fled, Bakiyev called on the CSTO to send in troops and urged “brotherly” Kyrgyz and Uzbeks to make peace, saying the leaders who had replaced him were incapable of restoring order.
Kyrgyz news agency Akipress reported Bakiyev’s son Maxim had been detained in Britain after landing at an airport there.
The interim government, which plans a constitutional referendum on June 26 and new elections in October, said on Monday that authorities in Jalalabad had arrested a “well-known person” on suspicion of fomenting the riots.
Kubatbek Baibolov, commandant in Jalalabad, said the unrest was “nothing other than an attempt by Bakiyev’s supporters and relatives to seize power.”
Thousands of ethnic Uzbeks have fled to the nearby border with Uzbekistan or sought refuge in local villages to escape the deadly fighting. Many said they were being targeted by Kyrgyz gangs in a “genocide” backed by local police and troops.
“Crowds of Kyrgyz are roaming around. They set our homes on fire and kill Uzbeks right in their houses,” ethnic Uzbek Muhammed Askerov, a Jalalabad businessman, told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed village.
Some ethnic Kyrgyz blame the bloodshed on Uzbeks or criminal gangs vying for influence in the region.
“The people who are talking about genocide are the same people who started this war,” Khimiya Suyerkulova, an ethnic Kyrgyz U.N. volunteer living in Osh, said by telephone.
“We have relatives who are Uzbeks. We have friends. We live in the same houses,” she said. She added that aid sacks of flour and potatoes had been delivered to feed residents who had feared starvation, as shops had been burnt to the ground.
Azimbek Beknazarov, deputy head of Kyrgyzstan’s interim government, said the situation in Jalalabad had stabilized on Monday afternoon after the mediation of Kyrgyz and Uzbek elders.
“There are no more crowds in the streets. We have resolved it by our popular methods,” he said by telephone from Jalalabad.
But he said many houses were still on fire.
Uzbeks who fled Jalalabad accused authorities of complicity.
“Their slogan is ‘Kyrgyzstan for the Kyrgyz’ and officials and police act hand-in-glove with them,” Askerov said. “But our ancestors were born here. Where should we go?”
Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan intertwine in the Fergana Valley. Uzbeks make up 14.5 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s population, but the groups are roughly equal in the Osh and Jalalabad regions.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon ordered a special envoy to the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, his office said in a statement.
Additional reporting by Olga Dzyubenko and Dmitry Solovyov in Bishkek, Robin Paxton in Almaty and John Bowker in Moscow, writing by Robin Paxton, Dmitry Solovyov and Steve Gutterman; editing by Andrew Roche