ANDIZHAN, Uzbekistan (Reuters) - The United States called Friday for an international investigation into ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan, as the country’s leader said the death toll could be 10 times higher than the official tally of 190.
Russia, which rejected a Kyrgyz plea for peacekeeping forces after the violence erupted last week, said it was now considering sending troops to guard key facilities in the Central Asian nation, Russian media reported.
Roza Otunbayeva’s interim administration and the United Nations say the bloodshed in clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, which has driven hundreds of thousands to flee their burnt-out homes, began with planned and orchestrated attacks.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake described the situation as a humanitarian crisis and urged the interim government of the Central Asian state, which hosts U.S. and Russian military bases, to act immediately to stop the killing.
Blake visited refugee camps in neighbouring Uzbekistan as Otunbayeva travelled to the south and pledged to rebuild the region to allow refugees to leave squalid camps and return home.
The government, which assumed power after the overthrow of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April, has struggled to restore order following clashes between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz around the ancient Silk Road city of Osh.
Around 400,000 refugees, mainly women and children, are crammed into huts and makeshift camps on either side of the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border on the sun-scorched plains of the Ferghana valley. Many are running out of food and water.
U.N. officials said an estimated 1 million people were affected by the conflict.
“We urge the provisional government of Kyrgyzstan to take immediate steps to stop the violence,” Blake told reporters on the Uzbek side of the border. “A Kyrgyz investigation should be complemented by an international investigation.”
A U.N. envoy backed calls for a probe and said his immediate priority was to ensure that the masses of displaced people get what they need to survive.
“A proper investigation should take place,” special envoy Miroslav Jenca told reporters in New York during a conference call from Kyrgyzstan.
Otunbayeva landed in Osh, its streets lined with charred buildings, in a military helicopter to meet local leaders.
“We will rebuild the city of Osh no matter what, so people can return to their homes,” the interim government quoted her as saying during the visit.
The United States and Russia fear continued turmoil in Kyrgyzstan, on a major drug trafficking route out of nearby Afghanistan, could offer a breeding ground for Islamist militancy in Central Asia.
Russia said it was considering a request from Otunbayeva’s interim government to send troops to guard vital facilities.
Otunbayeva, in an interview published Friday in the Russian daily Kommersant, said her government had asked Russia to send troops to guard “strategic facilities” such as reservoirs and hydroelectric power plants.
“We have taken this request under consideration. No final decision has been made,” state-run RIA, Itar-Tass and Interfax quoted a Russian Defence Ministry source as saying. Ministry officials could not be reached late Friday.
The Collective Security Treaty Organisation, a regional bloc that includes Russia, Kyrgyzstan and its neighbour Uzbekistan among others, has proposed sending advisors and equipment including helicopters to help restore order, but no troops.
Blake praised the Uzbek authorities for their swift reaction to the refugee crisis. About 100,000 people are housed in camps on the Uzbek side of the border, which are more orderly and are receiving more aid than those stranded on the Kyrgyz side.
In one camp, lined with rows of tents marked with the United Nations logo, dozens of women, many in tears, surrounded Blake, who was later due to fly to Kyrgyzstan.
Otunbayeva, whose government has not been formally elected, has accused Bakiyev of organising gangs of armed men to shoot at both Uzbeks and Kyrgyz to ignite ethnic violence in the south, Bakiyev’s traditional stronghold.
The ethnic breakdown of the official death toll of over 190 people is not clear. In an interview with Russia’s Kommersant daily published Friday, Otunbayeva said it could be as high as around 1,900.
“To get the real number of losses (dead) ... I would multiply the official number by 10,” she told Kommersant.
In the city of Osh, its streets strewn with rubble and still echoing with occasional gunfire, Uzbek neighbourhoods have set up barricades separating them from Kyrgyz areas.
Sporadic attacks have continued but major violence has subsided since Monday. Some locals started venturing out of their homes to pick through the wreckage.
The government is keen to stick to its plan to hold a constitutional referendum on June 27.
It also wants Britain to extradite Bakiyev’s younger son, Maxim, who it says was arrested in Britain this week.
Azimbek Beknazarov, deputy head of Kyrgyzstan’s interim government, said the United States should push Britain to speed up the extradition process as part of its “war on terrorism.”
“If they don’t give him up, the Kyrgyz public will question the point of having a NATO base (in Kyrgyzstan),” he said. The United States uses the Manas base outside the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek to supply NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, interviewed by the Wall Street Journal, was quoted as saying the United States should quit its base once NATO-led operations ended in Afghanistan.