Osh, Kyrgyzstan: Russia sent hundreds of paratroopers to Kyrgyzstan on Sunday to protect its military facilities, Interfax reported, as ethnic clashes spread in the Central Asian state, bringing the death toll from days of fighting to 97.
Ethnic Uzbeks in a besieged neighborhood of Kyrgyzstan`s second city Osh said gangs, aided by the military, were carrying out genocide, burning residents out of their homes and shooting them as they fled. Witnesses saw bodies lying on the streets.
Interfax news agency, citing a security source, said a battalion of Russian paratroopers had arrived in the country on Sunday to help protect Russian military facilities.
A Russian army battalion is usually around 400 men, but Interfax referred to a "reinforced battalion," which can include as many as 650 troops.
"The mission of the force that has landed is to reinforce the defense of Russian military facilities and ensure security of Russian military servicemen and their families," the source was quoted as saying.
Kyrgyz news website www.24.kg cited a Kyrgyz defense ministry source as saying Russian troops had landed at Kant air base aboard three Russian IL-76 aircraft.
The interim government in Kyrgyzstan, which took power in April after a popular revolt toppled President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, has appealed for Russian help to quell the riots in the south. Bakiyev, exiled in Belarus, said Kyrgyzstan was on the verge of collapse.
"God help us! They are killing Uzbeks like animals. Almost the whole city is in flames," Dilmurad Ishanov, an ethnic Uzbek human rights worker, told Reuters by telephone from Osh.
Led by Roza Otunbayeva, the interim government has sent a volunteer force to the south and granted shoot-to-kill powers to its security forces in response to the deadly riots, which began in Osh late on Thursday before spreading to Jalalabad.
The Interior Ministry said the situation in the Osh and Jalalabad regions -- strongholds of Bakiyev and his family -- remained "complex and tense." "Residents are calling us and saying soldiers are firing at them. There`s an order to shoot the marauders, but they aren`t shooting them," said ex-parliamentary deputy Alisher Sabirov, a peacekeeping volunteer in Osh.
Takhir Maksitov of human rights group Citizens Against Corruption said: "This is genocide." Renewed turmoil in Kyrgyzstan has fueled concern in Russia, the United States and neighbor China. Washington uses an air base at Manas in the north of the country, about 300 km (190 miles) from Osh, to supply its forces in Afghanistan.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said he believed 15 Pakistani citizens had been taken hostage and one killed in Osh. About 1,200 Pakistanis, mostly students, live in Kyrgyzstan, though many have returned home for summer holidays.
The upsurge in violence has killed more people than the riots that accompanied the overthrow of Bakiyev. Otunbayeva, whose government has only limited control over the south, has accused supporters of Bakiyev of stoking ethnic conflict.
Bakiyev issued a statement from Minsk describing claims he was behind the clashes as "shameless lies." "The Kyrgyz republic is on the verge of losing its statehood. People are dying and no one from the current authorities is in a position to protect them," he said.
Retired builder Habibullah Khurulayev, 69, said he was afraid to leave his apartment in the besieged district of Osh. Uzbeks armed with hunting rifles manned improvised barricades to keep out Kyrgyz gangs with automatic rifles, he said.
The gangs had attacked a hospital 600 meters from his home, while pleas by Uzbeks for a military escort to the border 10 km (6 miles) away had been ignored, he said. "They are killing us with impunity," he said. "The police are doing nothing. They are helping them kill us ... There are not many of us left to shoot."
The Health Ministry said 97 people had been killed -- 83 in Osh and 14 in Jalalabad -- and 1,243 were wounded. Ishanov said the fighting had spread into villages around Osh. In one settlement, smoke rose after prolonged gunfire.
"Kyrgyz groups are driving in and setting homes on fire. When the people run out, they shoot at them," Andrea Berg, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said by telephone from Osh.
In Jalalabad, gunmen shot at firefighters racing to a blaze at the Uzbek-run University of Friendship of Peoples, wounding a driver, Emergencies Ministry spokesman Sultan Mamatov said.