The worst conflict in Kyrgyzstan since a revolution in April 2010, may currently be confined to an area around the southern city of Osh, but the international ACT Alliance emergency aid and development agency has warned that the fighting could spread - writes Peter Kenny.
Tatiana Kotova, of the ACT Central Asia Forum, speaking from the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek, told the ACT Alliance in Geneva that fighting between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks could easily escalate in the central Asia region that is often described as a forgotten corner of the world.
"It is important that fragile democratic processes are supported not only in Kyrgyzstan but also in neighbouring central Asian countries," said Kotova. "The risk of the conflict spreading is high, with potentially global repercussions."
Kyrgyz officials gave the latest death count as 125, The New York Times newspaper reported on 14 June. Still, the paper also noted that Pierre-Emmanuel Ducruet, a spokesperson for the International Committee for the Red Cross, had said inspections of the morgues in Osh suggested that more than 700 people had been killed in the city alone. He added that, "not less than 3000" people were in need of medical help, mostly for gunshot wounds.
Most of the recent violence has taken place near the Ferghana Valley, a fertile region where Osh and nearby Jalalabad are located. The area once belonged to a feudal lord but Soviet dictator Josef Stalin divided the region between Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, all former Soviet republics which neighbour one another.
About 75 per cent of the people in Kyrgyzstan are Sunni Muslims, while some 20 per cent of the population belong to the Russian Orthodox Church.
In 1990, hundreds died in a violent land dispute between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Osh until the deployment of Soviet troops quelled the fighting.
Osh is the power base of exiled former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, whose government was overthrown in April. The latest violence threatens to disrupt a referendum on a draft constitution scheduled for later in June because people are less likely to participate. The interim government has declared a state of emergency in four southern regions.
"Yesterday, no one expected anything like this. This is quite a surprise," said ACT's Kotova. "Bishkek [in the north of the country] seems peaceful now but people are very scared in this unstable situation. It worries me what the night will bring."
ACT members in the region are to decide during the week whether to keep their offices open.
Kotova said she has colleagues with families in Osh, including one whose parents had been living in a Kyrgyz village next to an Uzbek village. They had experienced increasing harassment after living peacefully alongside their neighbours for many years.
"It is very important to send peaceful messages to society, especially to the youth. ACT member partners are working to steer people's energy into constructive and peaceful engagement," said Kotova. "While they have reservations and criticism of the interim government as it tackles the task of reforming the country, efforts right now must focus on keeping order so the process can continue."
On 8 June, ACT members gathered in Bishkek with 80 representatives from local citizens' organisations, donors and the European Union to discuss the post-April situation and how to support the democratic process.
"This is not the time to fuel the fire by focusing on discrimination against minorities, where it may exist," said Kotova. "Destructive forces are using such issues to provoke disorder and to destabilise the fragile peace."
Of Kyrgyzstan's 5.3 million population, ethnic Kyrgyz make up 69.6 per cent, Uzbeks 14.5 per cent, and Russians 8.4 per cent. In the south, Uzbeks comprise about 40 per cent of the one-million population in the Jalalabad region, and about 50 per cent in the neighbouring region of Osh, according to the Reuters news agency.
The ACT Central Asia Forum includes DanChurchAid, ICCO and Christian Aid, who all work in cooperation with each other, and have offices in Bishkek, as well as Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]