” Clashes between rival ethnic groups killed at least two people and hurt 50 on Wednesday, raising fears of a new cycle of violence as this Central Asian nation struggles to restore order after a bloody revolt last month.
Eyewitnesses in the southern town of Jalal—Abad said thousands of ethnic Kyrgyz attempted to storm a private university that serves as the focus of the minority Uzbek community. Local residents said gunfire broke out as crowds approached the building, which they said had been encircled by a cordon of special security forces.
Kyrgyzstan has been struggling to maintain stability in the weeks after President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted from power amid deadly clashes between government forces and demonstrators that claimed 89 lives.
Tensions have long simmered between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbek ” both Sunni Muslim groups” in the former Soviet nation’s restive south. In 1990, hundreds were killed in a violent land dispute between the two communities in towns across southern Kyrgyzstan, which borders Uzbekistan.
It was not clear who opened fire in Jalal—Abad, but Interior Ministry spokeswoman Gulsara Alieva said that nobody in the crowd appeared to be armed.
At least two people were killed and 50 injured, according to the Health Ministry. Some of the injured were being treated for gunshot wounds.
Witnesses said the crowd assembled in front of the university threw stones at the building and shouted demands for the hand—over of Uzbek community leader Kadyrjan Batyrov, whom they charge with inciting racial tension. Batyrov, a wealthy businessman, paid for the construction of the Peoples’ Friendship University.
In the middle of the afternoon, privately owned Akipress news agency cited eyewitnesses as saying that about 1,500 ethnic Uzbeks, some of them wielding spears, were moving toward the central square, where a crowd of ethnic Kyrgyz was assembled. Soldiers barred the Uzbeks’ movement toward the square, the agency reported.
Interim Prime Minister Roza Otunbayeva said every possible measure is being taken to defuse the situation.
“We have recently demonstrated that we are capable of securing the peace,” she said at a government meeting in Bishkek, the capital. “Law enforcement agencies will do everything in their power in Jalal—Abad to make certain there are no incidents.”
Supporters of Mr. Bakiyev, whose support base is in the Jalal—Abad region, accuse Mr. Batyrov of leading a mob late last week that burned down the deposed president’s family home in the nearby village of Teyit.
Mr. Bakiyev fled the country last month for Belarus, where he is being offered refuge, but interim authorities say his family is still actively financing disturbances aimed at unseating the provisional leadership.
The torching of the Bakiyev home on Friday evening marked the culmination of two days of violence in Jalal—Abad, which broke out when several hundred Bakiyev supporters, some with automatic rifles, holed up in the regional government building after capturing it a day earlier.
They were driven out by backers of the interim government, many of whom were ethnic Uzbeks. This led to local perceptions that the minority community was gaining political influence in the region.