Kyrgyzstan's interim government has appealed to Russia to send troops to quell growing ethnic violence in the southern city of Osh.

“The situation is spinning out of control. We need foreign military help to curb violence. I have asked Russia to send in troops,” Interim President Roza Otunbayeva told reporters in the capital Bishkek. The Kremlin confirmed that Ms. Otunbayeva spoke to Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin late on Friday, but there has been no official reaction yet from Moscow. Russia and the United States both have military bases in the north of Kyrgyzstan. However, a senior Russian military source was quoted as saying the Russian troops deployed at the Kant base — about 500 men, mostly air force personnel — would not intervene as their mission was different.

The Kyrgyz Health Ministry said 63 people had been killed and about 1,000 wounded in Osh since Thursday, when clashes broke out in the second largest city lying 600 km south of the capital. Reports said the death toll could be much higher. The government imposed curfew and moved troops into the city but has so far failed to restore order. Artillery and heavy machinegun fire was heard in the city on Saturday.

Ethnic Uzbek account for half of the 250,000-strong population in Osh and are generally better off than Kyrgyz residents. Eyewitnesses said gangs of ethnic Kyrgyz were rampaging Uzbek-populated parts of Osh, indiscriminately killing, looting and setting houses on fire.

“The sky is grey with smoke, houses are burning, we are scared to death,” said Tatyana Shapovalova, an ethnic Russian mother of four, by telephone from Osh. “We beg for someone to get us out of here.”

The government on Saturday declared emergency in the city of Jalal-Abad as unrest spread to the city 60 km away from Osh. Mr. Otunbayeva blamed ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev's family for instigating riots in their stronghold in Osh in an attempt to disrupt a constitutional referendum scheduled for late June. Mr. Bakiyev fled Kyrgyzstan after being toppled in a bloody coup in early April.

Refugees who fled to neighbouring Uzbekistan said Kyrgyz rioters were burning down Uzbek neighbourhoods in Osh one after another.

“There are no Uzbek residents left in Osh,” a middle-aged man told reporters on the Uzbek side of the border with Kyrgyzstan. “There is no one to help us, they are shooting us from tanks and armoured personnel carriers.”

An officer was killed in a Kyrgyz border guard station in Osh as armed gangs tried to capture more weapons and ammunition. Ms. Otunbayeva admitted that rioters had seized “armaments and weapons”.

The violence is the worst since 1990 when hundreds of people, mostly Uzbek, were killed in Osh. At that time Kyrgyzstan was part of the Soviet Union, and Moscow sent troops to stop the violence. Experts said for Russia to help today it must get a peace-keeping mandate either from the Commonwealth of Independent States, a loose alliance of post-Soviet states, or the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, the Russia-led defence bloc of seven ex-Soviet states.

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