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Kyrgyzstan Ethnic Violence Leaves Many Unanswered Questions

There are no exact figures on the scale of ethnic unrest that has hit southern Kyrgyzstan. They are lost in the chaos of what happened. No one is even certain why the violence erupted. Official casualty figures are contradictory and considerably lower than unofficial estimates. All that is known is that many people are dead and as many as 100,000 refugees, perhaps more, have been forced to abandon their homes in Osh and Jalalabad and other towns.

The United States and United Nations have condemned the violence in Kyrgyzstan. So, too, has Russia. But the international community has not responded to official and unofficial Kyrgyz requests for military assistance to stop the bloodshed. In Moscow, a member of the local Uzbek community, Sherzad Rakhmanov, cited the need for urgent outside help. He spoke at the Kyrgyz Embassy.

Call for help

Rakhmanov says Uzbeks are asking, first of all, to organize a corridor, not simply open the border, but to deploy some forces that could lead people who cannot get out of their houses, who are under siege, to help them cross the border, at least into Uzbekistan because it is the nearest country.

International humanitarian assistance is arriving. But food and water are scarce after armed looters raided stores of supplies. Many Uzbeks are hiding in basements, afraid for their lives if they leave. Uzbekistan has accepted as many as 100,000 refugees. Thousands more are reported trapped in a no-man's land between the violence at their backs and a frontier ahead of them.

Galina Nikolayevna is among the refugees to patrol Osh's ethnically-mixed Anoshin neighborhood. She says the entire city is in a state of panic, which anyone can see for themselves; that everybody is on the border.

How many dead?

The number of dead is not clear. Official reports vary between 124 and 200. But news reports indicate no one knows how many corpses remain in the streets; how many have been burned or the number of those buried in private by their families. This lends credence to unofficial estimates of as many as 1,000 dead.

The violence erupted on Friday, but the cause is not clear. Explanations range from a fight between a Kyrgyz and Uzbek because of an unpaid taxi fare to a plot by Kyrgyzstan's ousted president Kurmanbek Bakiyev to regain power. His base of support was in southern Kyrgyzstan, where local Uzbeks opposed him. Bakiyev denies any role in the violence and blames interim authorities for failure to protect the people.

What next?

Orunbai Suleimanov is a Kyrgyz who volunteered to patrol the ethnically-mixed Anoshin neighborhood, Osh.

Suleimanov says he is telling all the Uzbeks there is nothing to fear. He wishes them a normal life and assures nobody will harass anybody, nor say any bad words.

But sporadic gunfire means people are being harassed. Blood has been shed, people have been turned away and their homes set on fire. There seems to be no going back and the way forward remains uncertain.