Hundreds of Uzbek refugees who fled across the border to Kyrgyzstan amid the recent unrest in Andijan are being resettled in third countries, rather than returned to Uzbekistan, where international officials say they face possible persecution.
Uzbek women sit in a tent at a bleak refugee camp 40 kilometers from the Uzbek border
The regional spokesperson for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Carlos Zaccagnini, declined to specify where exactly the refugees would be sent. But Romania is one of the countries most often mentioned by local reports.
Earlier Wednesday, the U.N. refugee agency began airlifting the refugees to Bishkek from their base in the southern Kyrgyz town of Osh, near the border with Uzbekistan. Agency officials say they want to move the refugees because of growing fears they might be forcibly returned to Uzbekistan.
Both the United States and United Nations are calling for an immediate international investigation into the May 13 Andijan uprising, in which hundreds of people were killed by Uzbek troops and security forces in what the U.N. says looks like a massacre.
Uzbek authorities deny involvement and have been pressuring Kyrgyzstan to return all the refugees, citing unconfirmed claims that many of them are terrorists with links to Islamic militants.
Early on in the crisis, Kyrgyzstan did send four refugees back to Uzbekistan, but later officials said the issue would have to be worked out among all parties, including the international community.
Kumar Bekbalatov is an analyst with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in Bishkek. He tells VOA that the two-month tug-of-war over the refugees has put the new acting government of Kyrgyzstan in a particularly tough spot with neighboring Uzbekistan.
"Uzbekistan certainly wants all these people back and if all the refugees are sent out to a third country, I think this will seriously damage bilateral relations," said Mr. Bekbalatov. "At the same time, if Kyrgyzstan still retains some refugees who have committed serious crimes, and Kyrgyzstan is willing to hand over some to Uzbekistan, then I think it should also help relations with Uzbekistan."
About 29 Uzbek nationals who fled to neighboring Kyrgyzstan amid the bloody crackdown in Andijan, remain in a detention center in Osh, accused of organizing the disturbances.
It is not immediately clear if they are to be included in this week's repatriation effort. But latest reports quote U.N. refugee officials as saying that Uzbek military personnel are asking that 12 of 29 refugees be handed back to Uzbek authorities.
Just last week, acting Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev said 12 people might be sent back to Uzbekistan, raising alarm among officials in the West.