Latest update: 26/06/2010
Kyrgyz prepare for referendum amid simmering tensions
Final preparations were underway Saturday for a constitutional referendum in Kyrgyzstan, weeks after clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks left at least 275 people dead. But with tension still high, many may be too scared to cast their ballot.
REUTERS - Officials in Kyrgyzstan made final preparations on Saturday for a constitutional referendum in a climate of fear after the worst ethnic violence in the country's modern history.
Interim leader Roza Otunbayeva, who came to power in April after street demonstrations toppled President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, has rejected calls to postpone the referendum in the wake of this month's violence between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks.
At least 275 people and possibly many hundreds more have been killed, and hundreds of thousands displaced. Parts of the volatile south of the country remain in ruins.
Otunbayeva says the vote must be held to create a new system of government that will give more power to a democratic parliament, a dramatic change in a Central Asian region otherwise dominated by ex-Soviet presidential strongmen.
At a burnt-out Uzbek school in the southern city of Osh, the roof had fallen in and the floor was thickly covered with shards of window glass and burnt textbooks. A nearby squat building of pupils' workshops was turned into a makeshift polling station.
A Kyrgyz national flag was nailed to a wall and a ballot box was brought in watched by three soldiers with Kalshnikov rifles.
"This building is less destroyed, so we decided to hold the referendum here. I am confident that people will come out and vote here. We are all Uzbeks here, so it's safe to come," said Gulnara, a local referendum organiser.
Just off the city's centre, a Soviet-era elite school for Kyrgyz, unscathed despite days of severe clashes, was also preparing for the plebiscite, with a group of Kyrgyz election officials checking ballots in the algebra classroom.
"Currently there is only lawlessness and chaos in Osh. We need to end all of this, that's why we all want this referendum," said the polling station chairwoman, Ainura Eshmatova. "As for the people of Uzbek ethnicity, it's their choice whether to vote. No one can force them to vote."
At a graveyard on the outskirts of Osh, soldiers dug up and carted off bodies of victims of the violence, angering residents who wanted a proper investigation before bodies were disturbed.
"Soldiers came and dug them out. They took them away, those who had not been identified," said one man who asked not to be named. "Our people did not want it done unless there was an official commission."
He said only Uzbeks had been buried there, adding that some remains were just a pile of charred bones.
Rows of disturbed graves were marked with flowers and the air was thick with the stench of putrefaction. A foreign observer who asked not to be identified said he had seen at least five bodies dug up at the site.
First Deputy Interior Minister Baktybek Alymbekov told a news conference exhumations had begun on Saturday to identify those killed and gain a better idea of the death toll.
"It is in the interests of these victims (to be identified), so I do not think it will provoke any discontent," he said.
Otunbayeva has said the real death toll from the ethic violence could be as high as 2,000. The clashes were centred around Osh, the south's unofficial capital, an ancient city of apricot and cherry orchards ringed by the Tien Shan mountains.
Otunbayeva is expected to come to vote in Osh because she is originally from the region, government sources told Reuters. The interim leader remains little known in the city and her control of the volatile south is tenuous.
The United States and Russia, which both have military air bases in the country, say they would support a strong government to avoid the spread of violence in a region next to Afghanistan.
Otunbayeva has vowed to deliver ballot boxes to Uzbeks afraid to vote after the bloodshed. Dilshat, 30, an Uzbek electrician who also works as a money changer, scoffed.
"No one is going to vote. There is no trust in anything, in the government," he said.
"The Kyrgyz shot at us," he said. "They are simply jealous of our success and wealth. They want us out of this country."