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Moscow Faces Test in Kyrgyz Violence

Ethnic Uzbek refugees fleeing violence in Kyrgyzstan waiting for permission to cross into Uzbekistan on Monday. Anvar Ilyasov

The Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization held urgent talks Monday on how to deal with an outbreak of ethnic violence in member state Kyrgyzstan that has killed at least 170 people and injured more than 1,500.

The violence could prove a key test for the military alliance, which has been described as Moscow’s answer to NATO’s eastern expansion but has not seen any action since its inception in 2002.

The CSTO, as the grouping is known, said it might send helicopters, trucks and other equipment to Kyrgyzstan to help Kyrgyz law enforcement agencies.

“They have enough strength today, but they do not have enough equipment, helicopters, ground transportation, logistics and even fuel,” CSTO Secretary-General Nikolai Bordyuzha said, Interfax reported.

He said this was the main measure approved at Monday’s talks and, if approved, would restore order.

He also said the CSTO was ready to help identify the organizers of the violence and bring them to justice.

The CSTO comprises Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Interim Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbayeva appealed to President Dmitry Medvedev over the weekend for help to end the unrest in her country’s southern provinces of Jalal-Abad and Osh, where ethnic strife has happened before.

But Russia only sent a few hundred paratroopers to protect its soldiers stationed at its airbase in Kant.

Medvedev told Otunbayeva in a telephone conversation Sunday that it was important to quickly end the conflict, the Kremlin said in a statement.

Medvedev also announced Monday’s consultations among the security chiefs of the CSTO.

In 1990, Soviet troops were sent to Osh after hundreds were killed in clashes over land rights between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks.

Uzbeks make up a quarter of the population in Jalal-Abad and half of the population in Osh, while they represent just 15 percent of the country’s overall population.

Clashes erupted in the two provinces Friday, killing at least 124 people and injuring more than 1,500 others by Monday, the Kyrgyz Health Ministry said. But the death toll could be much higher. An unidentified Uzbek community leader said about 700 people were killed during clashes in the city of Jalal-Abad alone, Interfax reported.

Some 100,000 ethnic Uzbek refugees were massing at the border with Uzbekistan, The Associated Press reported.

Otunbayeva suggested that the violence was instigated by forces loyal to ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev to disrupt a June 27 referendum on a new Kyrgyz constitution.

“Their desire to regain power is desperate and stops at nothing,” she said.

Bakiyev denied the charges Monday. “They put all the blame on me and on my family. We have to stop putting the blame on others,” he told reporters from self-exile in Minsk, Interfax reported.

He urged the CSTO to send troops into Kyrgyzstan.

Bordyuzha, the CSTO secretary-general, said that while the CSTO had troops and peacekeepers at its disposal, any decision would have to be made after “careful consideration” with all member states.

Bakiyev was overthrown by an angry mob in April and later accused Moscow of supporting the protesters against him, a charge rejected by the Russian leadership.

Human rights groups called on the United Nations to help the authorities prevent further interethnic conflict. "This should be on the urgent agenda of the UN Security Council," Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

Analysts said the situation in Kyrgyzstan might prove a test case for the CSTO.

“If the CSTO cannot act in this situation, there will be serious questions about its long-run purpose,” said Svante Cornell, a research director at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Stockholm.

The CSTO’s charter stipulates that participants abstain from force against one another and that aggression against one member counts as aggression against all.

The Kremlin has been adamant that no CSTO forces should be deployed in Kyrgyzstan because the organization should not interfere in members’ internal affairs.

Alexei Vlasov, director of the Post-Soviet Studies Center at Moscow State University, said the organization’s charter does not provide a legal basis for peacekeeping troops among its members.

“For this, they need a UN mandate, and that will take very long to get,” he told The Moscow Times.

Vlasov said countries like Belarus and Armenia had very little interest in sending troops to Central Asia.

The CSTO has been beset with differing political goals among its members recently, with both Belarus and Uzbekistan declining to participate in a rapid-reaction force.

Belarus only joined last fall after months of delay because of a customs dispute with Moscow.

The Kremlin is also reluctant to send its own soldiers into a conflict zone, Vlasov said. “They will think twice before taking the risk of letting Russian soldiers die there,” he said.

While peacekeepers could do a good job in Kyrgyzstan once minimal stability was reached, further work would be extremely tough because there are no clear-cut lines between ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, said Vladimir Zharikhin, an analyst with the Commonwealth of Independent States Institute, a Moscow-based think tank. “This would be a formidable task keeping them apart,” he said.

Cornell said collective action by the CSTO was sensitive because the interethnic strife was pitting two member states, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, against each other.

“The biggest surprise is how quiet Uzbekistan has been,” he said.

Uzbek authorities have said little about the violence.

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