OSH, Kyrgyzstan (Reuters) - Kyrgyz forces started removing barriers dividing the city of Osh on Sunday as the government extended a state of emergency in some regions where up to 2,000 people have been killed in ethnic clashes.
But cars, tyres and piles of scrap metal remained in place across alleys in central Osh leading to burnt-out neighbourhoods occupied by ethnic Uzbeks, still fearful of more violence.
“We have become like Palestinians. They attack us with rifles while we can use only stones,” said Mavlyuda Mamadzhanova, 53, an ethnic Uzbek who fled her home when it was attacked.
The ethnic clashes in southern Kyrgyzstan have killed 2,000 people and uprooted 400,000, who are crammed into squalid camps on Kyrgyzstan’s sun-parched border with Uzbekistan with little access to clean water or food.
The United States and Russia, which both operate military air bases in the Muslim country, are concerned that turmoil in Kyrgyzstan could spread to other parts of Central Asia, a vast former Soviet region north of Afghanistan.
The violence erupted on June 10 with coordinated attacks by unidentified individuals in balaclavas and quickly led to fierce fighting between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz.
Mainly Uzbek households were attacked in three days of unrest, with entire neighbourhoods burnt to the ground. The United Nations says an estimated 1 million people were affected.
Interim leader Roza Otunbayeva, whose government assumed power after Kurmanbek Bakiyev was overthrown as president on April 7, has struggled to assert control in the south.
On Sunday, the interim government extended the state of emergency in Osh and three surrounding regions until June 25, two days before it plans to hold a referendum on constitutional reform that would devolve more power to a prime minister.
Russia said its foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “underscored the importance of the June 27 referendum ... for stabilising the situation” during a phone call on Sunday.
Authorities say barricades must be removed to help restore normal life. A few shops reopened along the main Navoi Street.
“They are ethnic Uzbeks, but they are Kyrgyz citizens. They are not restricted in their movements,” said a Kyrgyz security official at a checkpoint, who declined to give his name. Armed with a Kalashnikov rifle, he wore a T-shirt and dark glasses.
However, Uzbek residents are afraid of more violence.
“We no longer trust these patrols. Last time, they only cleared the way for these gangs,” said Hairulla Jalalov, 53, who was helping coordinate refugees in an outlying district of Osh. He said the cut above his eye was caused by a stray bullet.
Sabir Mirzasharibov, 42, a construction worker in central Osh, said there would be no escape should more clashes break out: “We will die and that’s that. We’ve got no other way out.”
The U.S. envoy for Central Asia, Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake, on Saturday urged Kyrgyzstan to create conditions for a safe return of refugees.
Kyrgyzstan’s tiny, under-equipped army has struggled to bring order to the south and security worries have prevented relief organisations reaching the worst-affected areas.
Besides camps on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border, some refugees are living in desperate conditions on the outskirts of Osh.
One such district, Dekhkan Kishlak, houses around 1,500 refugees, some of them living in concrete stables and kennels used to breed fighting dogs.
“I know nothing certain about our future,” said Ergash Akhmetzhanov, 76. “Most probably we will have to go to the other life. We have nothing left.”
Kyrgyzstan is a patchwork of tribes and clans and Bakiyev’s departure has set off a fierce fight for control over money in a country that lies on a drug trafficking route from Afghanistan.
There has always been rivalry between Kyrgyz people and traditionally richer Uzbeks. Observers say Bakiyev loyalists are playing on ethnic divisions to try to regain power.
The interim government has accused supporters of the former president of igniting the violence. Bakiyev, an ethnic Kyrgyz currently in exile in Belarus, has denied any involvement.
Writing by Robin Paxton and Steve Gutterman; Editing by Kevin Liffey