OSH, Kyrgyzstan (Reuters) - Kyrgyzstan granted shoot-to-kill powers to its security forces and appealed for Russia’s help on Saturday to stop ethnic fighting that has killed at least 77 and left parts of two major cities in flames.
The interim government of the former Soviet republic, host to U.S. and Russian military bases, decided at a late-night meeting to partially mobilize army reserves to combat the worst violence since the president was toppled in April.
It authorized security forces to shoot to kill in the southern regions of Osh and Jalalabad, where armed gangs have been burning down the homes and businesses of ethnic Uzbeks, ignoring curfews.
Lethal force was permitted in areas where a state of emergency has been declared in order to defend civilians, in self-defense and in case of mass or armed attacks, the government said in a decree.
“We need the entry of outside armed forces to calm the situation down,” interim government leader Roza Otunbayeva told reporters earlier. “We have appealed to Russia for help and I have already signed such a letter for President Dmitry Medvedev.”
But Russia said now was not the time to intervene.
“It is an internal conflict and for now Russia does not see the conditions for taking part in its resolution,” Natalya Timakova, Medvedev’s spokeswoman, was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency.
Kyrgyzstan, a poor former Soviet Central Asian state of 5.3 million people, declared a state of emergency in Osh and several rural districts early on Friday after rival ethnic gangs fought each other with guns, iron bars and petrol bombs.
Renewed turmoil in Kyrgyzstan will fuel concern in Russia, the United States and neighbor China. Washington uses an air base at Manas in the north of the country, about 300 km (190 miles) from Osh, to supply its forces in Afghanistan.
Gas was shut off to Osh, scene of gunfire on Friday and Saturday, and some neighborhoods had no electricity.
“Everywhere is burning: Uzbek homes, restaurants and cafes. The whole town is covered in smoke,” said local human rights worker Dilmurad Ishanov, an ethnic Uzbek.
“We don’t need the Kyrgyz authorities. We need Russia. We need troops. We need help.”
Violence and curfews extended to the Jalalabad region on Saturday, where violence broke out at an Uzbek university.
The Kyrgyz Health Ministry said at least 77 people had been killed — six of them in Jalalabad — and over 1,000 wounded in the violence in the southerly power base of former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, deposed by a popular revolt.
Otunbayeva said the eventual toll was likely to be greater.
Otunbayeva accused supporters of Bakiyev — like her, an ethnic Kyrgyz — of stoking the violence to disrupt her government’s plans to hold a national referendum on June 27 to vote on changes to the constitution.
“This event shows that the push by these people to turn backwards is extraordinarily great,” she said.
Interim government deputy chairman Omurbek Tekebayev called for peace between the Uzbeks and the Kyrgyz, saying they were “brotherly nations” who share a religion and similar languages.
The Uzbek Foreign Ministry expressed “great concern” about the events in Osh, saying there were “reasons to conclude that such events are organized, managed and provocational.”
The European Union said it would send its special representative for Central Asia, Pierre Morel.
Asked about possible Russian help, an EU spokesman said, “We would welcome any effort from one of our international partners to help the situation in Kyrgyzstan.”
The United States said it supported “efforts coordinated by the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to facilitate peace and order,” and said it urged its citizens in the country to maintain contact with the U.S. embassy.
Otunbayeva said Osh was also facing a humanitarian crisis as food was running out. She said her government had decided to open the border to Uzbekistan to allow fleeing Uzbeks to escape, although it was not clear who controlled the frontier.
At least 1,000 people, mainly women and children, made it across the border into Uzbekistan, according to local media reports, though some put the number much higher.
Russia offered humanitarian aid and sent in a helicopter with doctors to fly out some of the wounded, the Kremlin said.
Kyrgyzstan, which won independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, has been in turmoil since the revolt that toppled Bakiyev on April 7, kindling fears of civil war.
Supporters of Bakiyev, now in exile in Belarus, briefly seized government buildings in the south on May 13, defying Otunbayeva’s central authorities in Bishkek.
The latest clashes are the worst ethnic violence since 1990, when then-Kremlin leader Mikhail Gorbachev sent in Soviet troops after hundreds of people were killed in and around Osh.
Russia said it would discuss the current situation on Monday within the security bloc of former Soviet republics known as the Collective Security Treaty Organization.
Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan intertwine in the Fergana Valley. While Uzbeks make up 14.5 percent of the Kyrgyz population, the two groups are roughly equal in the Osh and Jalalabad regions.
The government now faces a major test in trying to reassert control, said Lilit Gevorgyan at IHS Global Insight. “The explosive combination of a counter-revolution and an ethnic conflict poses the greatest threat to the future of the Kyrgyz revolution.”
Additional reporting by Olga Dzyubenko in Bishkek, Robin Paxton in Almaty, Toni Vorobyova in Moscow and Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels; Writing by Robin Paxton and Toni Vorobyova; Editing by Mark Trevelyan