Kyrgyz leader says 2,000 may be dead in ravaged south

Kyrgyzstan's acting leader admitted Friday that the death toll from ethnic clashes is probably 2,000 -- ten times the current estimate -- as she went to the ravaged south where the UN said up to a million people may have been affected.

Both a US envoy and the UN Human Rights Council meanwhile urged investigations into the clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, which sent tens of thousands fleeing into neighbouring Uzbekistan.

On the same day she made her first visit to the devastated city of Osh since unrest erupted one week ago, interim leader Roza Otunbayeva said that the official death toll, which the health ministry said Friday had reached 192, was vastly underestimated.

"I would increase the official death toll from southern Kyrgyzstan by ten times," Otunbayeva said in comments broadcast on national radio.

Kyrgyzstan's interim leader Roza Otunbayeva wipes her face during a meeting with people in Osh.
Kyrgyzstan's interim leader Roza Otunbayeva wipes her face during a meeting with people in Osh.

"There were very many deaths in the countryside, and our customs dictate that we bury our dead right away, before sunset," meaning that many bodies were buried before deaths could be registered with authorities, she said.

Wearing a bullet-proof vest and accompanied by a heavy security detail, Otunbayeva landed by helicopter in the centre of Osh, some 300 kilometres (186 miles) south of the capital Bishkek.

"I came here to see, to speak with the people and hear firsthand what happened here. We will do everything to rebuild this city," Otunbayeva said before a handful of people on the main square.

The UN's World Health Organisation said it was working on a worst-case estimate that the crisis could affect up to one million people.

"We are working with a planning figure of one million people that have been directly or indirectly affected by this event -- 300,000 of them... refugees," said Giuseppe Annunziata, WHO coordinator for emergency programme support.

The UN Human Rights Council on Friday called on the Kyrgyz government "to conduct a full and transparent investigation that holds perpetrators accountable for the loss of life" during both the recent inter-ethnic violence and riots in April that brought the interim government to power.

The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also launched a 71-million-dollar humanitarian appeal to assist more than one million people affected by the ethnic clashes in Kyrgyzstan.

On a visit to Uzbekistan's border region of Andijan, US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert Blake went a step further and called for an independent probe into the violence.

"I think it's important that there be an investigation... but given the large number of ethnic Uzbek refugees here in Uzbekistan whose stories need to be heard, the Kyrgyz investigation needs to be accompanied by an investigation by an independent body," he told AFP.

The provisional government has insisted it is in control, but Otunbayeva said Russian troops will be deployed to guard some sites.

"Russian troops will guard some strategic sites in Kyrgyzstan," she said. "This decision has been taken to ensure security for these sites."

Russia's defence ministry confirmed that Kyrgyzstan had made a request for troops to guard sites but said a decision on whether to send forces had not yet been made.

"We can confirm that the Kyrgyz government has requested that Russian soldiers be deployed to protect strategic sites. We are taking the request into consideration but a final decision has not yet been made," a source in the Russian defence ministry told Russian news agencies.

Otunbayeva had earlier asked Russia to send military forces to help quell the ethnic clashes.

The Kremlin dispatched humanitarian aid but rejected Otunbayeva's request for military help, saying the violence was an internal affair that had to be brought under control by the government of Kyrgyzstan.

During her visit to Osh, Otunbayeva stayed away from the city's devastated Uzbek neighbourhoods -- many of which were burnt to the ground amid the worst of the ethnic bloodshed.

Victims of the unrest have told AFP that the violence was a brutal and orchestrated campaign by armed militias of ethnic Kyrgyz targeting Uzbek neighbours.

But Otunbayeva played down the scale of animosity between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks that fueled the clashes.

"We have always lived together and we always will live together," she said.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov also downplayed inter-ethnic tensions, saying that "neither Uzbeks nor Kyrgyz were to blame as the bloody events were organised by third parties" seeking to draw the two neighboring states into a conflict.

The riots were the worst inter-ethnic clashes to hit the impoverished Central Asian state since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Uzbeks make up 14 percent of Kyrgyzstan's population of 5.3 million.

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