Moscow: Ethnic riots wracked southern Kyrgyzstan on Saturday, forcing thousands of Uzbeks to flee as their homes were torched by roving mobs of Kyrgyz men. The interim government begged Russia for troops to stop the violence, but the Kremlin offered only humanitarian assistance.
At least 75 people were reported killed and nearly 1,000 wounded in the violence spreading across the impoverished Central Asian nation that hosts both US and Russian air bases.
Much of its second-largest city, Osh, was on fire Saturday and the sky overhead was black with smoke. Gangs of young Kyrgyz men armed with firearms and metal bars marched on minority Uzbek neighborhoods and set homes on fire. Stores were looted and the city was running out of food.
"It`s a real war," said local political leader Omurbek Suvanaliyev. "Everything is burning, and bodies are lying on the streets."
Those driven from their homes rushed toward the border with Uzbekistan, and an Associated Press reporter there saw the bodies of children trampled to death in the panicky stampede. Crowds of frightened women and children made flimsy bridges out of planks and ladders to cross the ditches marking the border.
Interim President Roza Otunbayeva acknowledged that her government has lost control over Osh, a city of 250,000, even though it sent troops, armor and helicopters to quell the riots. Violence spread to the nearby city of Jalal-Abad later Saturday.
"The situation in the Osh region has spun out of control," Otunbayeva told reporters. "Attempts to establish a dialogue have failed, and fighting and rampages are continuing. We need outside forces to quell confrontation."
Otunbayeva asked Russia early Saturday to send in troops, but the Kremlin said it would not meddle into what it described as Kyrgyzstan`s internal conflict.
"It`s a domestic conflict, and Russia now doesn`t see conditions for taking part in its settlement," Kremlin spokeswoman Natalya Timakova said in Moscow. She added that Russia will discuss with other members of a security pact of ex-Soviet nations about the possibility of sending a joint peacekeeping force to Kyrgyzstan.
Timakova said Russia would send a plane to Kyrgyzstan to deliver humanitarian supplies and help evacuate victims of the violence.
Russia has about 500 troops at a base in Kyrgyzstan, mostly air force personnel. The United States has the Manas air base in the capital, Bishkek, a crucial supply hub for the coalition fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Interim government spokesman Farid Niyazov refused to comment on whether the country would turn to the U.S. for military help after Russia had refused. "Russia is our main strategic partner," he said.
In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said he was unaware of any requests for help by Kyrgyzstan.
The riots are the worst violence since former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was toppled in a bloody uprising in April and fled the country. It comes as a crucial test of the interim government`s ability to control the country, hold a June 27 vote on a new constitution and go ahead with new parliamentary elections scheduled for October.
Otunbayeva on Saturday blamed Bakiyev`s family for instigating the unrest in Osh, saying they aimed to derail the constitutional referendum.
Ethnic tensions have long simmered in the Ferghana Valley, split by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin`s whimsically carved borders among Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In 1990, hundreds were killed in a violent land dispute between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Osh and only the quick deployment of Soviet troops quelled the fighting.
The official toll rose Saturday to at least 75 people dead and 977 wounded in both Osh and Jalal-Abad, the Health Ministry said. The real figures may be much higher because doctors say ethnic Uzbeks are too afraid to seek hospital treatment.
At a hospital near Osh airport, an AP photographer saw the bodies of 10 people killed in fighting, and a health worker said a pregnant woman also died of gunshot wounds.
In mainly Uzbek areas on the edge of Osh, residents painted the letters "SOS" on the road in a futile bid for help from the violence that began late Thursday.
Otunbayeva said there were food shortages in Osh after virtually all stores were looted or shut down. A state of emergency and a curfew was declared Friday around the city.
"Young men in white masks are marauding and stealing from the remaining stores, offices and houses, and then setting them on fire," said Bakyt Omorkulov, a member of the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, a non-governmental organization.
Omorkulov said terrified Uzbeks begged him for help, saying their houses were on fire. "They called us and were sobbing into the phone, but what can we do?" Omorkulov said.
At the Osh airport, hundreds of arriving passengers were stranded and fire from heavy machine guns and automatic weapons was heard as troops tried to gain control of roads into the city. An elite police force of 100 officers from Bishkek arrived late Saturday.
"Our task is to restore the constitutional order," said the group`s leader Nur Mambetaliyev.