Some 400,000 people have been displaced by ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan, the United Nations announced Thursday, dramatically increasing the official estimate of a crisis that has left throngs of desperate, fearful refugees without enough food and water in grim camps along the Uzbek border.
Ethnic Uzbeks interviewed by Associated Press journalists in the main regional city of Osh said that ethnic Kyrgyz men had sexually assaulted and beaten more than 10 Uzbek women and girls, including some pregnant women, and children as young as 12, on a single street during the rampages that erupted last week.
Resident Matlyuba Akramova showed journalists a 16-year-old relative who appeared to be in a state of shock, and said she had been hiding in the attic as Kyrgyz mobs beat her father in their home in the Cheryomushki neighborhood.
At some point, Akramova said, the girl came downstairs to bandage her father's head and another group of attackers noticed her and sexually assaulted her in front of her father.
Members of the Kyrgyz community have denied accusations of brutality and have accused Uzbek of raping Kyrgyz women. Eyewitnesses and experts say many Kyrgyz were killed in the unrest between the majority Kyrgyz population and minority ethnic Uzbeks. But the majority of victims appear to have been predominantly Uzbeks, traditional farmers and traders who speak a distinct but separate Turkic language and have traditionally been more prosperous than the Kyrgyz, who come from a nomadic tradition.
Odinama Matkadyrovna, an Uzbek doctor in Osh, said there were probably more cases of rape, but many victims were reluctant to speak out about their experience because of fear to dishonor their families in view of local traditions.
"Our mentality is such that they conceal (cases of rape)," she told the Associated Press Television News.
U.N. Humanitarian Office spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said an estimated 300,000 people had been driven from their homes but remain inside the nation of 5.3 million people. She said there are now also about 100,000 refugees in neighboring Uzbekistan. The last official estimate of refugees who fled the country was 75,000. No number of internally displaced has been available.
Kyrgyzstan's government has accused the country's deposed president of igniting long-standing ethnic tensions by sending gunmen in ski masks to shoot members of both groups. The government, which overthrew President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April, accuses the former leader of deep corruption and says that he and his supporters were attempting to shake official control of the south and reassert their grip on the Afghan heroin trade in the area.
Some Uzbek witnesses have alleged that the Kyrgyz mobs were aided by military and police.
Col. Iskander Ikramov, the chief of the Kyrgyz military in the south, rejected the allegations of troop involvement in the riots but said that the army didn't interfere in the conflict because it was not supposed to play the role of a police force.
Ole Solvang, a Human Rights Watch researcher investigating the violence in Osh, said Kyrgyz troops were standing 220 yards (200 meters) from the Cheryomushki neighborhood when the looting and killings started but didn't interfere.
"This is an extreme failure on the part of the government to intervene and protect these people", he told the APTN.
He also said the group had heard many reports from eyewitnesses that the military helped the rioters.
Khasan Rakhimov, a resident of Cheryomushki, said soldiers had driven an armored personnel carrier into the area and cleared the way for Kyrgyz attackers.
"They shot at all who put up resistance," he said of the troops.
The deputy chief of the provisional government, Azimbek Beknazarov, said Thursday that authorities had strengthened roadblocks on all entrances into the capital, Bishkek, and tightened security in prisons to prevent Bakiyev's clan from provoking turmoil in the north.
Beknazarov put the official death toll on both sides is 223, but others said the figure could be significantly higher. Many Kyrgyz were killed but the victims appear to have been predominantly Uzbeks, traditional farmers and traders who speak a distinct but separate Turkic language and have traditionally been more prosperous than the Kyrgyz, who come from a nomadic tradition.
Ethnic Uzbeks in camps along the Uzbekistan side of the border told Associated Press reporters Thursday that they were fearful of returning to their homes. Many on the Kyrgyzstan side said they had been prevented from doing so by the authorities, and were awaiting their chance to leave the country for the camps.
A few parts of the south have been all but purged of the ethnic Uzbeks. In other areas, some residents, mostly men, had stayed behind to look after property still left, felling trees and piling up old cars on the streets to barricade themselves into their neighborhoods.
Many of the thousands of refugees to have crossed into Uzbekistan say they are afraid to return to Osh, the country's second-largest city. The urban center and nearby areas had a population of more than 1.1 million. Many now would have nowhere to live if they returned.
"My house is not there anymore, it is burnt down, said Khafiza Eiganberdiyeva, 87, who is among 20,000 refugees in a camp set up near Yor Kishlok, three miles (five kilometers) from the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border.
In an Uzbek neighborhood of Osh, a baker who had fled to the border with his wife and five children said his family had lost hope after supplies on the border ran out, and returned out of desperation.
"Is there any difference where to die? There is no food, no water, no humanitarian aid," Melis Kamilov, 36, said against the backdrop of his ruined home.
The Kamilovs fled to the border on Sunday, three days after the rioting began in earnest.
"I am an Uzbek, is that a crime? This is not a Kyrgyz house, this house is mine."
More than 1 million Uzbeks who lived in Kyrgyzstan before the crisis had few representatives in power and pushed for broader political and cultural rights. About 800,000 of them resided in the south, rivaling Kyrgyz in numbers in the southern cities of Osh and the nearby town of Jalal-Abad. Both are predominantly Sunni Muslim.
Kyrgyzstan's weak military has been gradually regaining control of Osh, a major transit point for Afghan heroin and the epicenter of the recent violence, but citizens reported that some soldiers also were looting food aid. Some refugees who deserted Jalal-Abad, which also suffered heavy damage in the rioting, have been stopped from returning there by authorities who set up a checkpoint on the road back into the city.
In Britain, media reports said one of Bakiyev's sons had sought political asylum.
Maxim Bakiyev fled to Britain after Kyrgyz prosecutors put him on a wanted listed for allegedly avoiding almost $80 million in taxes.
The Home Office says the 32-year-old was questioned by officials when he flew into Farnborough Airport near London on a private plane Sunday without the necessary documents to enter the U.K.
Britain's domestic news agency Press Association reports that Bakiyev is seeking asylum. The Home Office said it cannot comment on an ongoing asylum application.