OSH, Kyrgyzstan - Mobs of rioters slaughtered Uzbeks and burned their homes and businesses in Kyrgyzstan's worst ethnic violence in decades, sending more than 75,000 members of the ethnic minority fleeing the country in attacks that appeared aimed at undermining the Central Asian nation's new interim government.
More than 100 people were killed in southern Kyrgyzstan and more than 1,200 wounded in days of attacks, according to government estimates yesterday. The true toll may be much higher.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said its delegates witnessed about 100 bodies being buried in just one cemetery, and noted that the official toll is unlikely to include bodies still lying in the streets.
Fires set by rioters raged across Osh, the second-largest city in Kyrgyzstan, as crowds of ethnic-majority Kyrgyz men took control. Neither police nor military troops were anywhere to be seen in the city of 250,000, where food was scarce after widespread looting and the few Uzbeks still left barricaded themselves in their neighborhoods.
The rampages spread quickly to Jalal-Abad, another major southern city 45 miles from Osh, and its neighboring villages, as mobs methodically set Uzbek houses, stores and cafes on fire. 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.
Some refugees were fired on as they fled to Uzbekistan. They were mostly elderly people, women and children, with younger men staying behind to defend their property.
Many of the more than 75,000 refugees arrived with gunshot wounds, the Uzbekistan Emergencies Ministry said, according to Russian reports.
"We saw lots of dead. I saw one guy die after being shot in the chest," said Ziyeda Akhmedova, an Uzbek women in her late 20s at one of several camps hastily set up in Uzbekistan along the border.
She was among the first refugees to reach the border on Friday and said the Uzbek border guards were reluctant to let them in until an approaching Kyrgyz armored personnel carrier began firing. She had little hope of returning home soon.
"Our houses have been burned down. I don't know how we will live, how we will talk to the people who shot at us," Akhmedova said.
The United States, Russia and the U.N. chief all expressed alarm about the scale of the violence and discussed how to help the refugees. The U.S. and Russia both have military bases in northern Kyrgyzstan, away from the rioting; Russia sent in an extra battalion to protect its air base.
Maksat Zheinbekov, the acting mayor of Jalal-Abad, said the true instigators were supporters of ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev who attacked both Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, the ethnic majority, to incite broader ethnic violence.
The interim government, which took over after Bakiyev was ousted by a public revolt in April, has been unable to stop the violence and accused Bakiyev's family of instigating it. Uzbeks have backed the interim government, while many Kyrgyz in the south have supported the toppled president.
From his self-imposed exile in Belarus, Bakiyev denied any role in the violence and blamed interim authorities for failing to protect the people.
Interim President Roza Otunbayeva's government had hoped to seal its political and democratic credentials in a referendum to approve a new constitution on June 27, but the likelihood of that vote taking place now looks slim.
A government order for troops to shoot rioters dead failed to stop the spiraling violence. 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.