OSH, Kyrgyzstan – 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 U.S. 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.
A snip from Kyrgyz leader asks Russia to restore order in Osh, dated June 12, 2010:
Kyrgyz TV reported that the country's borders with Tajikistan and China have been closed because of the unrest.
According to local reports, the violence broke out between rival gangs and developed into gun battles late on Thursday.
Riots and looting followed.
Now, I wonder what that is all about.