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Scale of Ethnic Violence in Kyrgyzstan Remains Mystery

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 the cities of 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. "First of all [we're asking] to organize a corridor, not simply open the border, but to deploy some forces, which could lead people out 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," Rakhmanoz said at Kyrgyz embassy.

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. "The entire city is in a state of panic - you see for yourselves. Because all people have children," said Galina Nikolayevna, an Uzbek refugee.

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 over 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.

Orunbai Suleimanov is a Kyrgyz who volunteered to patrol the ethnically-mixed Anoshin neighborhood of Osh. "I'm telling all the Uzbeks: there is nothing to fear. Let them live normally, nobody is going to harass anyone and nobody is going to say bad words about others," he said.

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.