MOSCOW — At least 46 people were killed and hundreds were wounded in clashes that began late Thursday and continued into Friday in the south of Kyrgyzstan, the Central Asian nation whose president was ousted in riots in April.
Times Topic: Kyrgyzstan
In the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek on Friday, protesters rallied in support of those fighting in southern Kyrgyzstan.
The violence posed a major challenge to the authority of the provisional government, which deployed troops, armored personnel carriers and helicopters in an effort to quell the unrest.
Witnesses said that gangs of young men carrying sticks and steel rods stormed through Kyrgyzstan’s second largest city, Osh, and the surrounding region, smashing storefronts and torching cars and houses. It was unclear what prompted their rampage.
Yelena K. Bayalinova, a Health Ministry spokeswoman, said that more than 600 people had been wounded, many suffering serious gunshot wounds.
Gunfire was heard throughout the day on Friday, and scattered fighting continued in Osh after a 6 p.m. curfew, said Timur Sharshenaliyev, a spokesman for the government there. In the capital, Bishkek, the riot police were called in after groups of young people tried to seize several minibuses and drive to Osh, Kyrgyz and Russian news agencies reported.
Kyrgyzstan’s acting leader, Roza Otunbayeva, suggested that loyalists of the former president, Kurmanbek S. Bakiyev, were behind the riots, describing the violence as a “local conflict” aimed at undermining stability ahead of a referendum scheduled for this month on adopting a new Constitution.
The southern region was once a Bakiyev stronghold, and his loyalists there have continued to clash with supporters of the new authorities in Bishkek.
But the region’s political conflicts are often laced with ethnic enmity, and some witnesses and local news outlets suggested that the violence started as a fight between groups of young Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, perhaps backed by opposing political forces.
“Everything happened suddenly,” Babur Bolshov, 28, a teacher and ethnic Uzbek, said by telephone. “A group of young Kyrgyz were going around with bottles of gasoline and burning homes where Uzbeks live and kiosks and supermarkets owned by Uzbeks.”
Other witnesses and news outlets described similar attacks carried out against the homes and businesses of ethnic Kyrgyz. The riots that prompted Mr. Bakiyev to flee the capital — and eventually the country — broke out April 7, with crowds incensed over rising utility prices and a government they considered repressive and corrupt swarming the main government building. More than 80 people were killed when police and presidential guards opened fire on the protesters.
In the aftermath, the new government quickly established control over Kyrgyzstan’s capital and much of the north of the country. But as an unelected, fragile alliance of varying and often conflicting political forces, its hold over the southern region has been tenuous.
Kyrgyzstan is an impoverished though strategically important former Soviet republic that is host to a Russian military base as well as an American one that serves as a transit hub for troops and supplies headed for the war in Afghanistan. In the southern region bordering Uzbekistan, violence has repeatedly erupted between local Kyrgyz and the sizeable Uzbek minority at times of political instability.
Tensions have been on the rise since the April riots, Bildora Khamidova, a human rights worker in Osh, said by telephone. Part of the problem, she said, is that many Uzbeks support the provisional authorities, while ethnic Kyrgyz maintain support for Mr. Bakiyev and his fallen government.
Last month, two people were killed and dozens wounded in clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Jalalabad, Mr. Bakiyev’s home region. Days earlier, Bakiyev supporters seized government buildings in Osh and Jalalabad, driving out local leaders loyal to the provisional government before being overrun themselves by government forces.
At a summit meeting in Uzbekistan of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a regional security alliance, President Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia and President Hu Jintao of China vowed to support Kyrgyzstan’s provisional government in restoring order. The United States Embassy in Bishkek also released a statement calling for an end to the violence.
Ms. Otunbayeva, the provisional leader, said those responsible would be punished “to the full extent of the law.”
“Today our multinational nation is again in a situation that demands of all of us extraordinary restraint, wisdom and skill to emerge from this conflict by peaceful means through negotiations and reconciliation,” Ms. Otunbayeva said in remarks carried by local news media.
She also appealed to women, asking them to “find the right words” to calm their sons, husbands and brothers.
spotted by RS