A bitter standoff between fearful Uzbek and Kyrgyz neighbourhoods gripped Kyrgyzstan's southern city of Osh on Thursday after the worst ethnic violence in the Central Asian nation in 20 years.
In Osh, the scene of most clashes, Uzbek neighbourhoods have barricaded themselves for fear of further violence, setting up unofficial demarcation lines separating them from Kyrgyz parts.
Several people were attacked on Thursday after crossing into the Kyrgyz side to visit a hospital, observers on the ground said.
Sporadic gunfire echoed around Osh's burned-out streets.
"It's extremely tense. It's highly flammable. Uzbeks and Kyrgyz are completely separated," Ole Solvang, an observer from Human Rights Watch, said during a visit to Osh.
At least 191 people have been killed since June 10 in south Kyrgyzstan in clashes between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz. The government says the death toll could be several times higher.
The army set up check points around Osh but its overall security presence was low. Bands of men in T-shirts armed with AK-47s patrolled the streets but it was unclear who they were.
Kyrgyzstan, its cash-strapped government operating a small and under-equipped army, said volatility could still spread.
"We cannot say that everything has been contained and stopped," Alik Orozov, secretary of the Security Council, told reporters. "There are forces out there that have yet to be defeated. To explode the situation in Bishkek you don't need an army. A band of 15-20 militants (is enough)."
The government issued a decree saying it would only cancel the referendum if the entire country were in a state of emergency, or if a state of emergency were to be enforced in regions containing more than half of the total electorate.
"This means the referendum will go ahead," said interim government spokesman Farid Niyazov.
"Afraid to return home"
Erkin Saipedinov quickly learned the basics of surgery when he joined the tens of thousands fleeing ethnic bloodshed in the Kyrgyz city of Osh. A doctor by profession, he now performs emergency operations in a mosque only yards (meters) from the border with Uzbekistan. Up to 300 people a day require medical treatment in squalid conditions. Disease is starting to spread among the refugees.
"We have practically no medicine and the conditions are completely unsanitary," said Saipedinov. Behind a bedsheet, a young boy suffering from acute diarrhoea was fixed to a drip.
"And we don't have any psychological aid."
Clashes between southern Kyrgyzstan's main ethnic groups, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, have killed at least 191 people since June 10. Some observers put the toll at nearer 1,000.
The killing has subsided in the last two days, but up to 100,000 people have fled their homes and set up camps in the Ferghana valley, where Kyrgyzstan borders Uzbekistan.
A barbed wire fence patrolled by Uzbek troops divides the countries. Tens of thousands who crossed into Uzbekistan before the border was closed are housed in schools and rows of tents.
On the Kyrgyz side, up to 100 people at a time are crammed into the clay houses and courtyards of ethnic Uzbeks. Many sleep rough on the arid ground.
Refugees, some with weeping sores on their feet, queue for bread distributed from local stockpiles. The rules are strict: one loaf per family.
Women, children and the elderly make up the majority of the refugees. Many were dressed in nightgowns. They boiled and drank clay-coloured water drawn in buckets from a pool in the village.
Ilkham Akramov, 27, was selling textiles in the central market in Osh when an armed gang broke in and started shooting.
"I was hit on the head with a hammer," he said. Blood seeped from beneath a bandage wrapped around his head.
"When this war is over, I must return to my house because this is our land," said Akramov. Like almost all of the refugees in the villages along the border, he is an ethnic Uzbek.
Local men, who declined to be identified, said they were holding hostage several ethnic Kyrgyz captured between Osh and the border. They said they would release them in exchange for ethnic Uzbeks they believed were also being held.
A Reuters reporter at the border did not see any hostages and could not independently verify these statements. Only a few international aid volunteers had arrived at the Kyrgyz side of the border. Local teenage volunteers, some with assault rifles slung over their shoulders, were patrolling the village.
An Uzbek elder, wearing an embroidered skullcap, read a Muslim prayer. He said ethnic Uzbeks could not rely on aid from the Kyrgyz authorities. "We can only beg Allah for mercy."
One sign of hope did arrive: four babies were born.
"Nowhere to go"
Kurbanova said about 50 armed men broke into her house in Osh on June 12. She showed a Reuters reporter photographs of her dead niece and mother, taken earlier on her mobile phone.
Her sister, 49-year-old Erkinai Umarova, bore wounds in her ear lobes. She said the attackers had ripped out her earrings.
The two sisters only escaped, Umarova said, because the attackers mistook them for ethnic Tatars after stripping them naked. "They said: 'Look at their white bodies! They can't be Uzbeks' and let us go." A third sister, Nigora Tulanova, wept. It was her five-year-old daughter -- Kurbanova's niece -- whom a sniper had shot dead. "I don't know how I can go on living," she said.
Mavlyuda Abdrakhmanova, 43, fled as her house burned down. "We no longer have any trust left for the Kyrgyz," she said.
With the Uzbek border closed and their own homes destroyed, many of the refugees do not know where they will go next.
"I believe that about 30 percent of people, those who have houses more or less intact, may return soon. Another 30 percent may return a little later," Saipedinov, the doctor, said.
"The problem is the other 30 percent have nowhere to go."
AgenciesLast Mod: 18 Haziran 2010, 16:43