Kyrgyz leader backs referendum as trouble flares

JALALABAD, Kyrgyzstan (Reuters) - Kyrgyz leader Roza Otunbayeva pledged on Monday to press ahead with a referendum in six days' time for the sake of stability, as violence flared again in the Central Asian state.

Kyrgyzstan's south has been volatile since a wave of ethnic bloodshed this month killed up to 2,000 people, destroyed entire neighborhoods and sent 400,000 people fleeing for the Uzbek border, where they are living with little food in squalid camps.

The United States and Russia, which both operate military air bases in Kyrgyzstan, are concerned that unrest could spread into other parts of Central Asia, a former Soviet region lying on a major drug-trafficking route out of nearby Afghanistan.

Kyrgyz security forces clashed on Monday with ethnic Uzbeks near Osh, the city worst hit by the violence. At least two people were killed, officials and human rights groups said.

Otunbayeva, leader of the interim government that assumed power after an April revolt that overthrew the president, visited another southern city, Jalalabad, where she addressed local officials after flying over burned-out houses.

Her government plans to hold a referendum on Sunday on constitutional reform to devolve more power to the prime minister. Some officials have said it should be postponed due to the violence and the difficulties in administering strife-torn southern regions.

"Holding this referendum has become necessary because we must create a legal framework," Otunbayeva said. "If we allow any delays, this will threaten us with further instability."

Clashes broke out in Osh when Kyrgyz officials entered an Uzbek neighborhood. Tolekan Ismailova, a prominent human rights campaigner, said by telephone that four people had been killed in an operation conducted by local police in response to the killing of a policeman last week.

Ole Solvang, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, told Reuters by telephone from a hospital in Osh: "The military have been going around doing checks ... and looking for weapons. A lot of people have been beaten up."

Timur Kamchibekov, a spokesman for the interim government, said Kyrgyz forces had come under attack in the Uzbek neighborhood of Nariman on the outskirts of Osh. "According to preliminary information, two civilians died," he said.

While the official death toll is 208, Otunbayeva has said 10 times as many people may have been killed in violence between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, which erupted on June 10 with coordinated attacks by unidentified individuals in balaclavas.

Mainly Uzbek households were attacked in three days of unrest, with entire neighborhoods burned to the ground. The United Nations says an estimated 1 million people were affected.

Otunbayeva, who spoke inside the regional administration building in Jalalabad, said the city was relatively calm and that it would be possible to hold the referendum there. A Reuters reporter said cafes and shops were open in the city.


The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said it would not observe Sunday's vote on the ground.

"We decided not to send a short-term mission due to the security situation," said Jens-Hagen Eschenbacher, spokesman for the OSCE's election monitoring arm.

Turkey and Kazakhstan backed the vote plan and said they would offer their support to Kyrgyzstan.

"Immediately after the referendum, we plan together with Kazakhstan to prepare joint actions to show our assistance to Kyrgyzstan," Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on a visit to Kazakhstan. He said such help could be related to the economy, diplomatic relations or security provisions.

On Sunday, Moscow said its foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton "underscored the importance of the June 27 referendum ... for stabilizing the situation" during a phone call.

Kyrgyzstan's tiny, under-equipped army has struggled to bring order to the south and security worries have prevented relief organizations reaching the worst-affected areas.

Kyrgyzstan is a patchwork of tribes and clans. There has always been rivalry between Kyrgyz people and traditionally richer Uzbeks.

The interim government has accused supporters of the ousted president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, of igniting the violence. Bakiyev, currently in exile in Belarus, has denied any involvement.

(Additional reporting by Maria Golovnina in Bishkek and Raushan Nurshayeva in Astana, writing by Robin Paxton, editing by Mark Trevelyan)

Source: Reuters US Online Report Top News

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