Police officers stand guard at check point in suburbs of Uzbek capital Tashkent
The U.N. high commissioners for human rights and refugees are urging Kyrgyzstan not to forcibly deport Uzbek asylum-seekers. The agencies say they fear deportations may be imminent.

It is rare for the two U.N. agencies to issue a joint statement. Rupert Colville, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, says this indicates how seriously the two agencies view the threat of deportation of Uzbeks from Kyrgyzstan.

"We had very strong indications from various angles - I cannot really go into it exactly - but, in the past two days, that things may very easily take a turn for the worst," he said. "And, that is why, in a sense, all the big guns are coming out. The heads of two U.N. agencies, and also the secretary general, Kofi Annan, last night, also spoke on this issue."

More than 450 Uzbeks fled to Kyrgyzstan during bloody riots last month in the Uzbek town of Andijan. Police opened fire on a crowd of armed rebels and civilian protesters. The government said 173 people were killed, but opposition groups said up to 1,000 died.

Kyrgyz Prosecutor General Azimbek Beknazarov said Kyrgyzstan had to respect agreements signed with Uzbekistan on the deportation of criminals. Uzbekistan has asked Kyrgyz authorities to send back 133 Uzbek asylum-seekers suspected of involvement in the May uprising.

Kyrgyzstan says it will deport 29 people accused of helping to organize the insurrection in Uzbekistan, calling them "terrorists and criminals."

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour says in the joint statement that there are reasons to believe that asylum-seekers may face an imminent risk of grave human-rights violations, if they are sent back to Uzbekistan, including torture and extra-judicial and summary executions.

Mr. Colville, the UNHCR spokesman, says the Uzbek authorities have been putting pressure on the men's relatives to persuade them to return home. Despite assurances to the contrary, he says, the Kyrgyz government forcibly repatriated four of the men 10 days ago. He says this was in violation of international refugee law.

"In general, that is what refugee is all about," he said. "It is about not sending people back to places where they could possibly be killed, face torture, face summary arrests for just having certain political views, etc.  And, this is what refugee status is all about. And, this is what we are trying to defend now for this group of people."

Mr. Colville says screening of the main group of Uzbek asylum-seekers is underway. He says Kyrgyz authorities told UNHCR staff a few days ago to conduct and complete this process for the group of 29 detained men by the end of the week.

Refugee spokesman Collville says this is very worrying. He says the asylum-seekers cannot be screened so quickly, and he fears they may be forcibly deported before the process is completed.