Dead dug up as Uzbeks return
INVESTIGATORS in southern Kyrgyzstan have begun exhuming the bodies of those killed during rampages against the Uzbek minority as tensions rise ahead of today's constitutional referendum.
Meanwhile refugees who fled the conflict to neighbouring Uzbekistan are heading back to their homes, forced to return there by the Uzbek government.
One such refugee, Gulasal Vakhitdzhanova gazed sadly at the charred remains of an ancient mulberry tree in what used to be her courtyard. All that is left of the family's belongings lay in a mangled bed frame.
She is one of tens of thousands of Uzbeks who have been pushed out of refugee camps in Uzbekistan, where they fled after ethnic riots, to return to southern Kyrgyzstan.
This week, a steady stream of Uzbek women and children trailed back into Kyrgyzstan through the border village of Suratash, carrying worn raffia bags full of possessions and sometimes food.
An estimated 1,800 houses, like Vakhitdzhanova's, have been razed to the ground by fireraisers in the main city of Osh alone.
That continued tensions have left the returning Uzbeks in limbo, homeless and terrified of renewed violence.
The impoverished Central Asian nation was thrown into chaos by five days of ethnic violence two weeks ago, when mobs of ethnic Kyrgyz attacked Uzbek neighbourhoods in the south.
The violence followed a bloody uprising in April that toppled President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, and the interim government has accused Bakiyev's followers of instigating the violence so the referendum is cancelled or postponed.
Bakiyev, in exile, has denied any links to the pogroms, but Kyrgyz authorities said last week that they had arrested and charged a nephew of Bakiyev with helping organise the rioting. His son, Maxim, has also been arrested in the UK.
Uzbeks have mostly supported the interim government, while Kyrgyz in the south backed Bakiyev.
Kyrgyzstan is on high security alert for today's election, with almost 8,000 police officers and a similar number of defence volunteers being deployed. Checkpoints have been set up throughout the capital, Bishkek, and in the southern cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad. The vote is seen as an important step towards democracy for the interim government.
Acting deputy interior minister Bakyt Alynbayev said digging up the corpses was essential for an accurate investigation. A large number of the victims were not officially identified because many were buried quickly in keeping with Muslim tradition.
"This is mainly in the interests of the victims themselves," Alynbayev said yesterday. "There should be no particular unhappiness, because this is necessary for settling the issue of compensation."
Yet at one cemetery in a mainly Uzbek neighbourhood, an angry crowd gathered yesterday as investigators, accompanied by more than a dozen uniformed soldiers began digging up fresh graves.
"Why are they doing this? We buried the dead as is proper, we read our prayers," said resident Abdulvasil Satybaldiev. "This isn't right, this isn't fair."
An official with the local prosecutor's office, Kurbanali Tashkulov, said ten unidentified bodies, some of them wrapped in carpets, were being exhumed at the cemetery.
"Investigations will be carried out on the unidentified bodies to establish their identities and the cause of death," Tashkulov said.
Interim President Roza Otunbayeva has said up to 2,000 people, including some Kyrgyz, may have been killed in the violence. Some in the Uzbek community have accused elements in Kyrgyzstan's military of complicity in attacks on their neighbourhoods that left around 1,800 homes and businesses burned to the ground.
Alynbayev said 60 people have been arrested on suspicion of organising the unrest.
Police and the military have been conducting security raids in Osh, the focal point of the violence that began on 10 June, in what they say is an attempt to seize unauthorised weapons.
The UN World Food Programme said it had distributed more than 650 tons of wheat and oil and airlifted more than 110 tons of high energy biscuits into the region. There is also the danger of infectious disease.
"What people really need is soap and nappies. Some people haven't bathed for ten days and many are now suffering from diarrhoea," said Anna Ford, Asia expert for Save the Children, who is in Osh to help with aid operations.
For now, Vakhitdzhanova and her extended family have taken shelter at the packed home of relatives in Suratash, about ten miles from Osh.
"Of course, we are afraid, but what else can we do?" saidVakhitdzhanova. "We have nowhere to live, we will have to stay here until our home has been rebuilt."
Vakhitdzhanova said she and her family got food and medical treatment in the refugee camp in Uzbekistan, but were encouraged to leave by Uzbek officials.
"They told us that we should come here before the referendum or the Kyrgyz government would not let us in," she said.
Vakhitdzhanova's husband, Sharabiddin Sabirov inspected the remains of his firebombed house at the foot of Mount Suleiman, a craggy outcrop that dominates Osh's skyline. The house, built and maintained by generations of the family, is now a scorched ruin.
Neighbouring buildings owned by Uzbeks on Osh's Alisher Navoi avenue are also burned. Sabirov said he watched the Kyrgyz mobs approaching his house, burning all buildings on their way.
"When they were some 150 metres away from my home, I decided to run away," he said. "I ran over neighbours' roofs."
Sabirov said the mobs also burned the headquarters of the local Uzbek TV station where he worked. He laments what he called the lack of help from the government.
"All the government wants to think about is the referendum," he said. "They don't want to give us any money to rebuild."
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