Muslim Kyrgyzstan

Ethnic violence spreads in Kyrgyzstan, raising fears of humanitarian crisis

By Philip P. Pan

Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 14, 2010

MOSCOW -- Deadly riots spread across southern Kyrgyzstan on Sunday as police with shoot-to-kill orders failed to stop the nation's worst ethnic violence in two decades and aid agencies reported that as many as 80,000 people had fled across the border to Uzbekistan.

With scores killed and hundreds injured as Kyrgyz mobs rampaged through ethnic Uzbek villages, human rights groups urged the international community to intervene and prevent a humanitarian disaster. But neither Russia nor the United States, both of which have military bases in the impoverished Central Asian country, appeared willing to dispatch peacekeeping troops.

A senior Obama administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Washington was in "extremely close communication with the Russians" and trying to coordinate a response through the United Nations or another international institution. But he said it was too early to speculate about military intervention.

"We want to do things that help reduce the violence, and to assume that the introduction of another set of armed forces from outside would help bring down the violence, there's different ways to look at that," he said.

Kyrgyzstan's shaky interim government, which came to power in a bloody uprising in April, has acknowledged losing control of the region and on Saturday appealed to Russia to send troops. But Russian President Dmitry Medvedev turned down the request, calling the violence an internal matter. Other officials said Moscow was reluctant to get involved in what could become a civil war.

The Kyrgyz government said the death toll climbed to 114 on Sunday, with more than 1,400 wounded. But local officials and aid workers said the actual number of casualties may be much higher because bodies remain uncollected in the streets and many people are too scared to go to hospitals.

The clashes that began Thursday night in Osh, the nation's second-largest city, involved bands of Kyrgyz men that stormed police stations collecting guns and attacked Uzbek neighborhoods and villages, looting and setting fire to buildings and slaughtering residents. Gangs of Uzbeks also have been reported attacking Kyrgyz communities.

It is unclear what sparked the violence, but local officials have accused supporters of the recently deposed president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, of inciting the turmoil to undermine the provisional government ahead of a referendum this month on a new constitution.

The mayor of Jalal-Abad, the city where the worst fighting seems to have shifted, has asserted that Bakiyev loyalists set off the riots by attacking both Uzbeks and Kyrgyz. Local police officials also have said that relatives of Bakiyev have been spotted leading Kyrgyz mobs and distributing weapons.

The region is considered a Bakiyev stronghold, and several members of the former autocrat's family are thought to be in hiding there or in nearby Tajikistan. Some are wanted in connection with abuses blamed on Bakiyev's government, including political assassinations and the killing of protesters during the April 7 revolt that toppled him.

Bakiyev, speaking from exile in Belarus, denied any role in the unrest and warned that Kyrgyzstan was in danger of losing its sovereignty. "People are being killed and no one in the current government can protect them," he said in a statement distributed by the Interfax news agency.

About 15 percent of Kyrgyzstan's largely Muslim population of 5 million is ethnic Uzbeks, but in Osh and Jalal-Abad, their numbers rival those of the ethnic Kyrgyz. The area is part of a fertile valley that includes sections of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and has a long history of ethnic strife, including clashes over land in 1990 that left hundreds dead.

Uzbeks in the region generally support the new government and have been demanding greater representation and rights, exacerbating tensions with local Kyrgyz, many of whom continue to support Bakiyev.

Anna Nelson, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said a colleague who visited the refugee camps in Uzbekistan described a "humanitarian catastrophe unfolding" and saw evidence of "very serious brutality," including a video showing Uzbeks trapped in burning buildings.

Most of those in the camps were Uzbek -- women, children and the elderly -- and some mothers had been separated from their children in the chaos, she said. Uzbek men appeared to have remained in Kyrgyzstan to defend their homes.

Nelson said another colleague witnessed about 100 bodies being buried in a city cemetery in Osh on Sunday, raising concerns about proper identification of the dead. She also noted reports that the mobs have attacked ambulances and firefighters.

"We know there are people in their homes who are wounded and can't get medical services because they're too scared to leave their homes," she said. "We're hoping that armed security forces can at least ensure medical staff can get through."

Echoing local Kyrgyz activists, Human Rights Watch urged the U.N. Security Council to take swift measures to help the Kyrgyz government stop the violence and called for the deployment of a U.N.-mandated force. "People are desperate to escape the violence, but without international assistance there's no way out, and every minute of delay is costing lives," said Andrea Berg, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Osh.

The Uzbek government, which said it had opened its border to refugees, described the violence as "organized, managed and provocative" and intended "to create intolerable conditions for ethnic minorities living in southern Kyrgyzstan."

Both the Russian and American air bases are in northern Kyrgyzstan, far from the violence. If Russia intervenes, it is likely to gain a greater say in the future of the U.S. facility, which is critical to supplying NATO forces in Afghanistan. Some Russian officials have described the American base as an intrusion in Moscow's sphere of influence and tried to persuade Kyrgyzstan to close it.

Russia is scheduled to discuss the crisis in a meeting Monday of a regional alliance of former Soviet republics, but it appeared open to a response by the Security Council. Moscow has been reluctant in recent weeks to let the United Nations play a role in Kyrgyzstan, but it agreed to allow a briefing to the council on the crisis on Monday or Tuesday, a senior council diplomat said.

The senior U.S. official said measures short of a peacekeeping deployment could be considered, including humanitarian aid and a mission of international mediators or observers. If military intervention is needed, he added, "our chief concern is to make sure the international community is involved here and legitimizing or organizing any potential peacekeeping force. So far, we don't have a disagreement with the Russians about that."

He said Washington and Moscow have shared interests in Kyrgyzstan and could cooperate on a response. "We're pursuing all avenues that might decrease violence, including Russian participation," he said.

Mobs burn villages, slaughter Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan

June 13, 2010

OSH, Kyrgyzstan — Kyrgyz mobs burned Uzbek villages and slaughtered their residents Sunday as ethnic rioting engulfed southern Kyrgyzstan. The government ordered troops to shoot rioters dead but even that measure failed to stop the spiraling violence.

More than 100 people have been killed and over 1,000 wounded in the impoverished Central Asian nation since the violence began Thursday night. Doctors say that death toll is low, because wounded Uzbeks are too afraid of being attacked again to seek treatment in hospitals.

Thousands of Uzbeks have fled in panic to the border with Uzbekistan after their homes were torched by roving mobs of Kyrgyz men. Uzbek women and children were gunned down as they tried to escape, witnesses said.

Fires set by rioters have destroyed most of Osh, a city of 250,000, and looters have stolen most of its food. Triumphant crowds of Kyrgyz men took control of most of Osh on Sunday while the few Uzbeks still in the city barricaded themselves in their neighborhoods.

The riots are the worst violence since former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted in a bloody uprising in April and fled the country. The Uzbeks have backed the interim government, while many Kyrgyz in the south had supported the toppled president.

Interim President Roza Otunbayeva blamed Bakiyev's family for instigating the unrest in Osh, saying they aimed to derail a constitutional referendum to be held June 27 and new elections scheduled for October. A local southern official said Bakiyev supporters attacked both Kyrgyz and Uzbeks to ignite the rioting.

Otunbayeva asked Russia for military help to quell the violence, but the Kremlin refused, saying it would not meddle in an internal conflict. Russia did send a plane to deliver humanitarian supplies and evacuate some victims.

Kyrgyzstan hosts both U.S. and Russian military air bases, but they are in the north, away from the fighting.

The U.S. Manas air base in the capital, Bishkek, is a crucial supply hub for the coalition fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. A Pentagon spokesman in Washington said Saturday that the interim government had not asked for any U.S. military help.

Bakiyev was propelled to power in 2005 on a wave of street protests, but his authority collapsed amid growing corruption allegations, worsening living conditions and political repression.

Gunfire rang out Sunday in another major southern city, Jalal-Abad, where the day before a rampaging mob burned a university, besieged a police station and seized an armored vehicle and weapons from a local military unit. Thousands of Kyrgyz men brandishing sticks, metals bars and hunting rifles gathered at the city's horse racing track, shouting anti-Uzbek slogans while frightened police stayed away.

Kyrgyz mobs killed about 30 Uzbeks Sunday in the village of Suzak in the Jalal-Abad region, Talaaibek Myrzabayev, the chief military conscription officer in Bishkek told The Associated Press. Another Uzbek village, Dostuk, was burned by Kyrgyz assailants, but the number of casualties there was unclear, he said.

Ethnic Uzbeks also ambushed about 100 Kyrgyz men Sunday on a road near Jalal-Abad and took them hostage, he said.

In the nearby village of Bazar-Kurgan, a mob of 400 Uzbeks overturned cars and killed a police captain, local political activist Asyl Tekebayev said. Residents said armed Kyrgyz men were flooding into the village to retaliate.

In 1990, hundreds of people were killed in a violent land dispute between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Osh, and only the quick deployment of Soviet troops quelled the fighting. With no Russian troops in sight, the interim government late Saturday announced a partial mobilization, calling up military reservists up to 50 years old.

"No one is rushing to help us, so we need to establish order ourselves," said Talaaibek Adibayev, a 39-year old army veteran who showed up at Bishkek's military conscription office.

The official casualty toll Sunday rose to at least 80 people dead and 1,066 wounded, with more than 600 hospitalized, the Health Ministry said. The figure didn't include the 30 Uzbeks killed near Jalal-Abad,

Witnesses said bodies were lying in the streets of Osh on Saturday and more were scattered inside its many burned buildings. As Uzbek refugees, mostly women and children, fled the city toward the border witness said many were shot at and killed.

Maksat Zheinbekov, the acting mayor of Jalal-Abad, said in a telephone interview that Bakiyev's supporters triggered the riots by attacking both Uzbek and Kyrgyz people. The rampaging mob quickly grew several hundred to thousands, he said.

The fertile Ferghana Valley where Osh is located once belonged to a single feudal lord, but it was split by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin among Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The Stalinist borders rekindled old rivalries and fomented ethnic tensions.

Both ethnic groups are predominantly Sunni Muslim. Uzbeks are generally better off economically, but they have few representatives in positions of power and have pushed for broader political and cultural rights.

Kyrgyz residents interviewed by Associated Press Television News in Osh blamed the Uzbeks for starting the rioting late Thursday with attacks on students and Kyrgyz women. The crowds of ethnic Kyrgyz from neighboring villages then streamed into the city to strike back, they said.

"Why have them Uzbeks become so brazen?" said one Osh resident, who gave only her first name, Aigulia, because she feared for her safety. "Why do they burn my house?"

Aigulia said her house was destroyed by Uzbeks overnight and all her Kyrgyz neighbors had to run for their safety. She said the area was still unsafe, claiming Uzbek snipers were shooting at them.

A Kyrgyz man, Iskander, said he and others burned Uzbek property to avenge their attacks.

"Whatever you see over there — all the burnt restaurants and cafeterias were owned by them and we destroyed them on purpose," he told APTN. "Why didn't they want to live in peace?"

Leila Saralayeva reported from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Associated Press Writer Yuras Karmanau in Bishkek contributed to this report.


Mullahs to Sit Religious Tests


NBCentralAsia analysts have broadly welcomed plans to test Muslim clerics and teachers in Kyrgyzstan on their knowledge of the faith, arguing that this will improve the mosques and help contain extremism.

On September 10, Toygonbek Kalmatov, the director of the government’s State Agency for Religious Affairs, announced that plans were under way to test clerics and teachers at Islamic religious schools or madrassahs. Those who pass will receive official certification, while anyone who fails will be banned from teaching and preaching.

Kalmatov said that around 70 per cent of Kyrgyzstan’s 12,000 practising Muslims have never studied at formal religious schools.

He also announced that a recent meeting of Kyrgyzstan’s Security Council decided to reform the legislation concerning faith organisations. At the moment, the regulatory framework consists of presidential decrees, five law codes and seven government orders, creating a situation which Kalmatov said “does not meet the requirements of the present day”.

Around 80 per cent of Kyrgyzstan’s population is Muslim, and the country has more than 2,000 mosques and about 50 madrassahs.

Most of the commentators interviewed by NBCentralAsia welcomed the tests, saying it would help stamp out ignorance and give both mosques and madrassahs a better reputation.

“It’s high time Islamic clerics were given certification. It’s no secret that most of our mullahs have only completed the first two or three years of [primary school] education,” said Aldayar Ajy, the deputy head of the Religious Board of Muslims.

Political scientist Mars Sariev believes there is a great need to educate clerics better, first because of the learning gap created by 70 years of Soviet rule in which religious activity was frowned on, and secondly because in recent years a variety of forms of Islam have emerged, and clerics in Kyrgyzstan now offer differing interpretations of the Koran.

“The poor standard of education of Islamic clerics allows extremist ideas to take hold, and young people can drift towards religious organisations that use Islam for political purposes,” he said.

Religious affairs expert Kasym Amanov agrees, saying that mosque-goers will be more inclined to trust radical interpretations of Islamic theory or the Koran if their usual preacher cannot answer their questions properly.

“The inadequate level to which clerics are educated in our country is one of the reasons why support for Hizb-ut-Tahrir is growing,” he said, referring to an extremist group banned in Kyrgyzstan.

(NBCentralAsia draws comment and analysis from a broad range of political observers across the region)