Kyrgyzstan begged Russia for military help Saturday to quell ethnic rioting as the country's second largest city burned and thousands of minority Uzbeks fled to the border. More than 60 people were reported killed and nearly 850 wounded in the violence.
Interim President Roza Otunbayeva acknowledged that her government has lost control over the south as its main city of Osh slid further into chaos. Her government sent troops and armor into the city of 250,000, but they have failed to stop the rampage.
Much of central Osh was on fire Saturday, and the sky was black with smoke. Gangs of young Kyrgyz men armed with firearms and metal bars marched on minority Uzbek neighborhoods and set homes on fire. Stores were looted and the city was running out of food.
"The situation in the Osh region has spun out of control," Otunbayeva told reporters. "Attempts to establish a dialogue have failed and fighting and rampages are continuing. We need outside forces to quell confrontation."
The unrest is the worst violence since former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was toppled in a bloody uprising in April and fled the country. It comes as a crucial test of the interim government's ability to control the country, hold a June 27 vote on a new constitution and go ahead with new parliamentary elections scheduled for October.
Otunbayeva on Saturday blamed Bakiyev's family for instigating the unrest in Osh, saying they aimed to derail the constitutional referendum.
There was no immediate response from Moscow to Otunbayeva's plea for help, even though she wrote to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and talked on the phone with Russia's powerful Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Yet Russia dominates a security pact of several ex-Soviet nations that includes Kyrgyzstan. Both its obligations under the Collective Security Treaty Organization and its strategic interests in the impoverish Central Asian nation suggest it will be open to Otunbayeva's call for help.
Kyrgyzstan hosts both U.S. and Russian military air bases, but they are in the north. Russia has about 500 troops there, mostly air force personnel, and would have to send more in. The United States has the Manas air base in the capital of Bishkek that is a crucial supply hub for the coalition fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan but it was not known if interim government had asked for any U.S. military help.
Ethnic tensions have long simmered in the Ferghana Valley, split by whimsically carved borders between Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan draw up on Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's orders. 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.
The official toll rose Saturday to least 63 people dead and 835 wounded, the Health Ministry said. The real figures may be much higher, because doctors and human rights workers said ethnic Uzbeks were too afraid to seek hospital treatment.
At a hospital in the Nariman district, near Osh airport, an AP photographer saw the bodies of ten people killed in fighting, and a health worker said a pregnant woman also died after being unsuccessfully treated for gunshot wounds.
In mainly Uzbek areas on the edge of Osh, residents painted the letters "SOS" on the road in a futile bid for help.
Otunbayeva said there were food shortages in Osh after virtually all stores were looted or shut. A state of emergency was declared around Osh and the government sent armored vehicles, troops and helicopters to pacify fighting that erupted late Thursday. Fighting quieted down Friday night but resumed with new strength Saturday.
"Young men in white masks are marauding and stealing from the remaining stores, offices and houses, and then setting them on fire," said Bakyt Omorkulov, a member of the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, a non-governmental organization.
Omorkulov said ethnic Uzbeks called to say their houses were on fire and they were terrified. "They called us and were sobbing into the phone, but what can we do?" Omorkulov said.
From the Osh airport, where hundreds of arriving passengers were stranded, fire from heavy machine guns and automatic weapons was heard as troops tried to gain control of roads into the city.
Omurbek Suvanaliyev, a leader of the Ata-Zhurt political party that tried to organize local militia, said the warring parties even used armored vehicles in fighting.
"It's a real war," he said. "Everything is burning, and bodies are lying on the streets."
Police and residents said young Kyrgyz men with metal bars and guns were streaming into Osh by road from other parts of the country and marching toward Uzbek neighborhoods.
At one border crossing, a crowd of refugees, mostly women and children, fashioned improvised flimsy bridges out of planks and ladders to traverse the ditches marking the border.
Additional reinforcements were arriving at the Osh airport, including 100 elite police officers from Bishkek. "Our task is to restore the constitutional order," said the group's leader Nur Mambetaliyev.
- Thirty-seven killed, 500 hurt in new wave of Kyrgyz violence
- Opinion: Will Obama support democracy in Kyrgyzstan?
- Deadly riots in Kyrgyzstan challenge interim government
Saralayeva reported from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. AP Writer Vladimir Isachenkov also contributed to this story from Moscow.