Kyrgyz mobs burned Uzbek villages, slaughtered their residents and stormed police stations seeking to loot more weapons Sunday as ethnic rioting engulfed new areas in southern Kyrgyzstan.
The interim government in the impoverished Central Asian nation ordered troops to shoot rioters dead but even that has failed to stop the spiralling violence which has left more than 100 people dead and over 1,100 wounded since Thursday night.
Doctors and rights activists say that official toll is far too low because wounded minority Uzbeks are too afraid of being attacked again to go to hospitals.
The riots are the worst violence since former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted in a bloody uprising in April and fled the country. The Uzbeks have backed the interim government, while many Kyrgyz in the south had support the toppled president.
Thousands of Uzbeks have fled in panic to the nearby border with Uzbekistan after their homes were torched by roving mobs of Kyrgyz men. Some Uzbek women and children were gunned down as they tried to escape, witnesses said.
Fires set by rioters have destroyed most of Osh, the country's second-largest city, and looters have stolen most of its food.
Triumphant crowds of Kyrgyz men took control of most of Osh on Sunday while the few Uzbeks still in the city of 250,000 barricaded themselves in their neighbourhoods.
The rampages spread quickly Sunday to Jalal-Abad, another major southern city, and its neighbouring villages, as mobs methodically set Uzbek houses, stores and cafés on fire. The rioters seized an armoured vehicle and automatic weapons at a local military unit and attacked police stations around the region trying to get more firearms.
Police and the military appeared to be on the defensive across the south, avoiding clashes with mobs.
Blames deposed president's family
Interim President Roza Otunbayeva blamed Bakiyev's family for instigating the unrest in Osh, saying it was aimed at derailing a constitutional referendum on June 27 and new elections scheduled for October.
A local official said Bakiyev supporters had attacked both Kyrgyz and Uzbeks to ignite the rioting. "Bakiyev's entourage has funded and organized these riots," Otunbayeva's deputy Omurbek Tekebayev told The Associated Press.
From his self-imposed exile in Belarus, Bakiyev issued a statement denying any role in the violence and blaming the interim authorities for failing to protect the population.
Bakiyev was propelled to power in 2005 on a wave of street protests, but his authority collapsed amid growing corruption allegations, worsening living conditions and political repression.
Otunbayeva asked Russia for military help to quell the violence, but the Kremlin refused, saying it would not meddle in an internal conflict. Russia did send a plane to deliver humanitarian supplies and evacuate some victims.
U.S., Russia have bases in north Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan hosts both U.S. and Russian military air bases, but they are in the north, away from the fighting.
The U.S. Manas Air Base in the capital, Bishkek, is a crucial supply hub for the coalition fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. A Pentagon spokesman said the interim government had not asked for any U.S. military help.
The U.S. Embassy in Kyrgyzstan voiced a deep concern about the raging violence and called for the "immediate restoration of order and a respect for rule of law." It said it was discussing humanitarian aid with the interim government.
Uzbekistan's Foreign Ministry condemned the riots and voiced hope that Kyrgyzstan will re-establish order. Uzbekistan's authoritarian President Islam Karimov is unlikely to interfere into the conflict.
In Jalal-Abad on Sunday, thousands of Kyrgyz men brandishing sticks, metals bars and hunting rifles gathered at the city's horse racing track and marched to burn Uzbek property, while frightened police stayed away. Uzbeks felled trees on the city's main thoroughfare, trying to block their advance. Jalal-Abad is 70 kilometres from Osh.
Kyrgyz mobs tried to storm the city's hospital, but Uzbeks drove them off after a fierce gun battle that raged for hours, witnesses said. Mobs also tried to capture the Jalal-Abad police headquarters, but were repelled.
Kyrgyz mobs killed about 30 Uzbeks Sunday in the village of Suzak in the Jalal-Abad region, Talaaibek Myrzabayev, the chief military conscription officer in Bishkek, told The Associated Press. Another Uzbek village, Dostuk, was burned by Kyrgyz assailants, but it was not known how many people were killed there, he said.
Ethnic Uzbeks ambushed about 100 Kyrgyz men Sunday on a road near Jalal-Abad and took them hostage, he said. Vehicles on the main highway near Jalal-Abad repeatedly came under fire from unidentified gunmen.
In the nearby village of Bazar-Kurgan, a mob of 400 Uzbeks overturned cars and killed a police captain, local political activist Asyl Tekebayev said. Residents said armed Kyrgyz men were flooding into the village to retaliate.
Stalin's borders cause tension
The fertile Ferghana Valley where Osh and Jalal-Abad are located once belonged to a single feudal lord, but it was split by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin among Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The Stalinist borders rekindled old rivalries and fomented ethnic tensions.
Both ethnic groups are predominantly Sunni Muslim. Uzbeks are generally better off economically, but they have few representatives in power and have pushed for broader political and cultural rights.
In 1990, hundreds were killed in a violent land dispute between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Osh, and only the quick deployment of Soviet troops quelled the fighting. With no Russian troops in sight, the interim government announced a partial mobilization late Saturday of military reservists up to 50 years old.
"No one is rushing to help us, so we need to establish order ourselves," said Talaaibek Adibayev, a 39-year old army veteran who showed up at Bishkek's military conscription office.
The official casualty toll Sunday rose to at least 84 people killed and 1,122 wounded, the Health Ministry said. The figure didn't include the 30 or more deaths Sunday around Jalal-Abad.