Asian mayhem: Kyrgyzstan boils over in ethnic bloodshed

Written by Tom Waseleski on .

Trouble re-emerged in Kyrgyzstan last week, underlining the muddy hole the United States has its boot in as it depends on an airbase there to supply U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

In April there was a major upheaval in the former Soviet republic, a Central Asian country of 5 million with borders on China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Last week, fighting broke out in the south between the majority Kyrgyz population and the Uzbek minority, which accounts for 14 percent of the population. Clashes intensified and fires roared in the city of Osh. The official death toll is at least 138, with an estimated 1,800 injured, but many believe far more have been killed or hurt. Thousands of Uzbek refugees have fled across the border into Uzbekistan and 100,000 were reported massed along the border Monday.

The assault against the Uzbeks is considered a result of what took place in April, when elected President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted in what appeared to be a popular revolt. He is in exile in Belarus. Mr. Bakiyev was replaced by an unelected interim government headed by former Foreign Minister Roza Otunbayeva. The Uzbeks in general support the new leadership; some of the Kyrgyz, particularly in the south, do not.

The Russians, who have military facilities in Kyrgyzstan, also back the new government. On Saturday it asked Moscow to send peacekeeping forces into the country to prop up the government, in support of the threatened Uzbeks against Kyrgyz who are opposing it. Russia's response so far has been only to increase the number of troops it has at its facilities in the country, to assure security there.

For the United States, what is at stake is the continued use of Manas Air Base, through which U.S. forces and supplies en route to and from Afghanistan are staged. American forces were able to retain use of the base through the April upheaval. Continued access to it is particularly important now as U.S. forces in Afghanistan "surge" in support of the expected, although delayed, U.S., NATO and Afghan government effort to cleanse Kandahar, the Taliban's historical center in southern Afghanistan. The U.S. force level in Afghanistan now stands at 94,000.

Given that the other supply route into Afghanistan is through Pakistan, which is dangerous due to attacks from the Pakistan Taliban and other dissidents, U.S. dependence on the Kyrgyzstan route is not likely to change. The only hope of freeing the United States from having to be concerned about what happens in Kyrgyzstan, definitely a street without joy, is U.S. force withdrawal from Afghanistan, now scheduled to begin in July of next year.

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