Hundreds of refugees from Kyrgyzstan's ethnic violence clung to the barbed wire fence separating them from Uzbekistan on Tuesday, desperate to join tens of thousands already across the border.
Thousands of families fled into neighbouring Uzbekistan after clashes erupted last week around Osh, a Kyrgyz city lying at the heart of a historic ethnic fault line running through the heart of former Soviet Central Asia.
The United Nations says the number of refugees, mostly ethnic Uzbeks, could top 100,000. Uzbekistan closed the border on Monday to all except those with fresh wounds.
It reopened three checkpoints to let in more than 60 wounded people late on Tuesday. But hundreds were left stranded on the Kyrgyz side. "Our villages were burned down completely. Why can't we leave too?" many of them shouted through the fence.
During a tour of the border area organised by the Uzbek foreign ministry, a group of foreign reporters was shown schools and summer camps that have been transformed into makeshift refugee camps to house those fleeing the violence.
A teacher at one of the schools, who declined to give his name, said there were too many refugees for the border region of Uzbekistan to accommodate. "If all of them come here, we will all be starving soon," he said.
Under the guard of Uzbek troops in armoured personnel carriers, children played ping-pong while their parents told of the horrors they had witnessed fleeing the turmoil.
Like hundreds of others,Mutulla Imakov, 26, was stuck on the Kyrgyz side. Speaking through the barbed wire fence, he said his brother had been killed as they ran away from Osh.
"My brother was shot in the head by a sniper," he said. "He was only 25 years old and left two baby sons. Snipers shot people in the head and in the heart."
Tales of horror included the killing of children and babies. "They hung one of the dead babies from traffic lights," said Mukhayo Matkarimova, a 55-year-old woman in a refugee camp.
Reporters on the Uzbek side of the border did not meet any ethnic Kyrgyz refugees. The two ethnic groups have blamed the killings on each other, or on a certain "third force" aiming to provoke them into violence.
Kyrgyz human rights workers have said it was difficult to assess losses on the Kyrgyz side. More than 170 people have been killed but the ethnic breakdown of the death toll is not officially known.
No one knows exactly how the violence started on Thursday last week. The U.N. human rights office said it appeared to have begun with five coordinated attacks. [Id:nLDE65E1J5]
Marshai Dilayeva, a 56-year-old Uzbek woman, said her uncle was wounded in Osh. "My uncle was coming out of the mosque and was wounded," she said. "Two soldiers were firing in the air, but one was firing at me and laughing."
Dalfusa, a medical worker who escorted the wounded across the border, said many women had been raped. One of the raped women, visibly shaken and shivering, was taken to a hospital across the border in the Uzbek city of Andizhan.
"Now we're trying to calm her down. She is absolutely out of control," said Dalfusa, without giving any other details.
A Reuters photographer saw food and water being distributed from dozens of Russian-built trucks that brought humanitarian aid to the Uzbek side of the border.
Kyrgyzstan's south, straddling the Ferghana valley -- Central Asia's most densely populated region, uneasily carved up among ethnic Kyrgyz, Uzbeks and Tajiks -- has been on the edge since a violent revolt toppled Kyrgyzstan's president in April.
The valley is largely ethnically Uzbek and the proportion is about half and half on the Kyrgyz side. Ethnic Uzbek and Kyrgyz communities clashed violently in 1990 in a conflict over land ownership that left hundreds of people dead.
With poverty and joblessness widespread, Islamic militancy has deep roots and the continued presence of refugee camps could provide a breeding ground for radicalism, analysts say.
Kyrgyzstan's interim government, which came to power after the April revolt, says Uzbekistan had shut the border to prevent "those seeking revenge" from streaming back into Kyrgyzstan.
"Otherwise it would have already been a war between the two states," interim leader Roza Otunbayeva said on Tuesday.
ReutersLast Mod: 16 Haziran 2010, 08:33