Kyrgyz mobs burned Uzbek villages, slaughtered their residents and stormed police stations seeking to loot more weapons Sunday as ethnic rioting engulfed new areas in southern Kyrgyzstan.
The interim government in the impoverished Central Asian nation ordered troops to shoot rioters dead but even that has failed to stop the spiraling violence that has left more than 100 people dead and about 1,250 wounded since Thursday night.
Doctors and rights activists say that official toll is far too low because wounded minority Uzbeks are too afraid of being attacked again to go to hospitals.
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 support the toppled president.
Thousands of Uzbeks have fled in panic to the nearby border with Uzbekistan after their homes were torched by roving mobs of Kyrgyz men. Some Uzbek women and children were gunned down as they tried to escape, witnesses said.
Fires set by rioters have destroyed most of Osh, the country’s second-largest city, 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 of 250,000 barricaded themselves in their neighborhoods.
Fires continued to rage across Osh and occasional shots were heard. Police were nowhere to be seen.
Police, military on the defensive
The rampages spread quickly Sunday to Jalal-Abad, another major southern city, and its neighboring villages, as mobs methodically set Uzbek houses, stores and cafes on fire. The rioters seized an armored vehicle and automatic weapons at a local military unit and attacked police stations around the region trying to get more firearms.
Police and the military appeared to be on the defensive across the south, avoiding clashes with mobs. Flights to both Osh and Jalal-Abad were canceled.
In Jalal-Abad on Sunday, thousands of Kyrgyz men brandishing sticks, metals bars and hunting rifles gathered at the city’s race track and marched to burn Uzbek property while frightened police stayed away. Uzbeks felled trees on the city’s main thoroughfare, trying to block their advance. Jalal-Abad is 45 miles (70 kilometers) from Osh.
Kyrgyz mobs tried to storm the city’s hospital, but Uzbeks drove them off after a fierce gunbattle that raged for hours, witnesses said. Mobs also surrounded a local prison, trying to free its inmates and attempted repeatedly to capture the Jalal-Abad police headquarters, but were repelled.
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 it was not known how many people were killed there, he said.
Ethnic Uzbeks ambushed about 100 Kyrgyz men Sunday on a road near Jalal-Abad and took them hostage, he said. Vehicles on the main highway near Jalal-Abad repeatedly came under fire from unidentified gunmen.
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.
The fertile Ferghana Valley where Osh and Jalal-Abad are 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 power and have pushed for broader political and cultural rights.