(Reuters) – The United Nations urged Kyrgyzstan on Tuesday to prevent the spread of indiscriminate ethnic killing beyond its borders and said the number of refugees fleeing the clashes may soon exceed 100,000.
At least 170 people have been killed in the cities of Osh and Jalalabad in the deadliest ethnic clashes in Kyrgyzstan in 20 years. Witnesses said gangs armed with automatic rifles, iron bars and machetes set fire to houses and shot fleeing residents.
The clashes, which began on Thursday night and escalated over the weekend, have fueled concern in Russia and the United States, both of whom operate military air bases in the strategic but volatile nation west of China.
Analysts say that if southern Kyrgyzstan, which shares the densely populated Ferghana Valley with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, descends into chaos, it could help militant Islamists financed by drugs.
But interim Kyrgyz leader Roza Otunbayeva said it was clear the region’s main security bloc, the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), would not fulfill Bishkek’s request for the immediate dispatch of peacekeeping forces.
United Nations Special Envoy Miroslav Jenca said Kyrgyzstan should take every step possible to ensure that violence did not spread to other parts of ex-Soviet Central Asia, a vast Muslim region north of Afghanistan and Iran.
“The most important task now is to stop the bloodshed,” Jenca told reporters. “This conflict should be localized.”
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, urged local and national authorities in Kyrgyzstan to take “swift and decisive action” to protect citizens, irrespective of their ethnic origin.
“It seems indiscriminate killings, including of children, and rapes have been taking place on the basis of ethnicity,” Pillay said in a statement issued late on Monday.
U.N. political chief Lynn Pascoe called for the urgent creation of a humanitarian corridor to ensure aid was delivered to victims of the violence. A Reuters reporter said Osh appeared calm on Tuesday.
But the interim government, which assumed power after the president was overthrown in April, was bracing for violence in the capital Bishkek and another region of the north, which is separated from the densely populated south by mountains.
It has accused supporters of the ousted president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, of stoking ethnic conflict. Bakiyev, who is in exile in Belarus, has denied this allegation.
Almazbek Atambayev, deputy leader of the interim government, called the violence in Osh premeditated and said provocative acts were to be expected in the Chui region and Bishkek. “But we are well prepared for this,” Atambayev added.
The CSTO military bloc of ex-Soviet states on Monday proposed sending helicopters and equipment to help Kyrgyzstan’s government stop the ethnic violence.
But Kyrgyzstan said it had been told not to expect the immediate dispatch of peacekeeping troops. “The introduction of peacekeeping forces has so far been deemed inexpedient,” Otunbayeva told journalists in Bishkek on Tuesday.
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 former-Soviet Central Asia.
“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 harbor to Islamic militants and ease the operating environment for organized crime and narco-trafficking groups.”
Washington uses its air base at Manas in the north of the ex-Soviet republic, about 300 km (190 miles) from Osh, to supply forces fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.
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.
In Vienna, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said countries needed to take immediate action to stem the violence. Europe’s biggest security and human rights body said at an emergency meeting that it was ready to help restore order in Kyrgyzstan.
The United Nations said it had received information from the Uzbek authorities that 75,000 refugees had massed on the Uzbek side of the border. “But this number is rising and may soon pass 100,000 people,” Jenca said.
He said aid deliveries had been thwarted by the violence.
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 southern Kyrgyzstan since 1990, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev sent troops to Osh after hundreds of people were killed in a dispute that started over land ownership.
Speaking on Monday in Belarus, 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.
British authorities arrested Bakiyev’s son, Maxim, after he landed at Farnborough airport in southern England, Kyrgyz news agency Akipress reported on Monday, citing Kyrgyz Security Chief Keneshbek Dushibayev.
Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan intertwine in the Ferghana Valley. Uzbeks make up 14.5 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s population, but the groups are roughly equal in the Osh and Jalalabad regions.
The interim government said it had helped to evacuate foreign citizens including 200 Chinese and 198 Indians and citizens of Turkey, Pakistan, European Union nations, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan.
Pakistan and Germany sent aid to the troubled regions, and China was expected to send food and medical supplies on Tuesday.