YORKISHLOK, Uzbekistan (Reuters) - Refugees from Kyrgyzstan’s vicious ethnic bloodletting begged to be let into neighbouring Uzbekistan on Tuesday as the United Nations urged Kyrgyz authorities to stamp out the violence.
At least 176 people have been killed in the cities of Osh and Jalalabad, near the Uzbek border, in fierce fighting that began on June 10 and escalated into the deadliest clashes the impoverished Central Asian state has seen in 20 years.
Tens of thousands of Uzbek families have fled into Uzbekistan since last week but Uzbekistan, struggling to accommodate the influx, closed the border on Monday to all except those freshly wounded.
The events have fuelled concern in Russia and the United States, both of whom operate military air bases in the strategic but volatile Muslim nation on China’s western border.
Driven by fear of further violence, hundreds of refugees clung to the barbed wire fence separating them from Uzbekistan, desperate to join tens of thousands already across the border.
“Our villages were burnt down completely. Why can’t we leave too?” they shouted through the fence, many in tears.
As the violence spread over the weekend, witnesses said gangs armed with automatic rifles, iron bars and machetes had set fire to houses and shot fleeing residents.
U.N. officials have said the number of ethnic Uzbeks fleeing the clashes could exceed 100,000.
U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes said in a statement it was “vital that the border with Uzbekistan remains open.”
“It seems indiscriminate killings, including of children, and rapes have been taking place on the basis of ethnicity,” said Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. She urged Kyrgyz authorities to take “swift and decisive action” to protect people irrespective of their ethnic origin.
Interim leader Roza Otunbayeva, who took power after a revolt in April that ousted president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, was quoted by Russia’s Interfax news agency as saying the real death toll could be “several times” higher than the official numbers.
The interim government has said more violence could occur in the capital Bishkek and another region of the north.
“We are keeping enough forces in Bishkek and are working to ensure that Bishkek stays under our control,” said Otunbayeva, who has accused supporters of Bakiyev, now in exile in Belarus, of stoking ethnic conflict.
Bakiyev has denied he is behind the violence. His son Maxim was arrested in Britain on Monday after he landed at an airport in southern England, Kyrgyz media reported.
On the Uzbek border, tales of horror included the killing of children. Refugee Mukhayo Matkarimova, 55, said she had witnessed such scenes. “They hung one of the dead babies from traffic lights,” she said.
It was unclear what sparked the violence last week but Pillay’s office said on Tuesday the events appeared to have been “orchestrated, targeted and well-planned,” beginning with five coordinated attacks by men carrying guns and wearing balaclavas.
“What we need above all is an improved security situation on the ground around Osh to prevent further loss of life and to allow access so that humanitarian needs can be properly assessed and tackled,” Holmes said.
The United States said Assistant Secretary Robert Blake would go to Bishkek on Friday to consult with Kyrgyz officials.
Independent U.N. rights investigators said they had concerns about reports of a shoot-to-kill policy adopted by the provisional government, which has sent some troops to the south.
The region’s main security bloc, the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), on Monday proposed sending helicopters and equipment to help stop the violence.
Kyrgyzstan said it had been told not to expect the immediate dispatch of troops. The CSTO is seen as the most likely vehicle for a deployment of peacekeepers from Russia, which is vying for influence with China and the United States in the region.
“Moscow greatly fears instability in this region,” Eurasia Group analysts said in a note.
“The violence poses the prospect of a lawless area in the south of Kyrgyzstan that could, in the Kremlin’s view, eventually provide safe harbour to Islamic militants and ease the operating environment for organised crime and narco-trafficking groups.”
The United Nations and the European Union have urged the interim government to stick to plans for a referendum on June 27 and parliamentary elections in October. Otunbayeva said on Tuesday there were no plans to delay the referendum.
The violence is the worst in Kyrgyzstan since 1990, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev sent troops to Osh after hundreds were killed in a row that started over land ownership.
Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov and Olga Dzyubenko in Bishkek, Robin Paxton and Maria Golovnina in Almaty; writing by Maria Golovnina; editing by Andrew Roche