Ethnic clashes in southern Kyrgyzstan have killed at least 26 people and left more than 450 wounded, officials said Friday as they declared a state of emergency in part of the Central Asian nation that hosts U.S. and Russian military bases.
The rioting in Osh, the country's second-largest city, is the heaviest violence since former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was topped in a bloody uprising in April and fled the country.
The intensity of the conflict, which pits ethnic Kyrgyz against the minority Uzbek community, appears to have taken authorities by surprise and has thrown the fragile interim government's prospects for survival into doubt.
Quelling the violence will prove a decisive test of the government's ability to control the country, hold a June 27 vote on a new constitution and go ahead with new parliamentary elections as scheduled in October.
Several buildings across Osh were ablaze Friday after witnesses reported sustained gunfire beginning late Thursday. Gangs of young men armed with metal bars and stones attacked shops and set cars alight.
The interim government declared a state of emergency Friday in Osh and dispatched armored vehicles, troops and helicopters to pacify the situation. Soldiers were posted at routes into the city and at major intersections.
Witnesses said mobs of men were setting fire to houses in neighborhoods populated mainly by Uzbeks. Ikram Abdumalitov, who lives in Osh, said around 1,000 young and armed Kyrgyz were marching toward eastern Osh.
"The Uzbeks are in turn chopping down trees and blocking the road to their neighborhood," Abdumalitov said.
Armed men were arriving from nearby villages to join the fight, a trader said, speaking on on condition of anonymity due to the dangerous situation.
"I have just driven through the city and the streets are filled with young men brandishing sticks, armor and weapons," said Bakyt Omorkulov, a member of the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, a non-governmental group.
He said Uzbek areas were espeically hard hit by the violence.
"Aravan street is completely destroyed, dozens of cafes and buildings are burning — it's the same picture in Cheryomushki. It's like being in Chechnya," he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
Despite a heavy military presence, fighting had not abated in Osh by Friday afternoon, and authorities imposed a curfew from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. until June 20.
Many of the injured were being treated for stabbing and gunshot wounds, Health Ministry spokeswoman Yelena Bailinova said. Dozens were reported in serious condition.
In an emotional televised address Friday, interim President Roza Otunbayeva called for a return to calm.
"I would like to appeal in particular to the women of Kyrgyzstan. Dear sisters, find the right words for your sons, husbands and brothers. In the current situation, it is unacceptable to indulge in feelings of revenge and anger," she said.
At a security summit in neighboring Uzbekistan, Chinese President Hu Jintao and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev both expressed concern over fighting and promised to support Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic of 5 million people, in restoring order.
"We are really interested in seeing Kyrgyzstan overcome the stage of internal upheaval as soon as possible and solve its problems by building a modern government capable of tackling pressing socio-economic problems," Medvedev said in comments reported by the ITAR-Tass news agency.
Bakiyev is believed to be in exile in Belarus, but interim authorities accuse his supporters of trying to undermine their government and prevent the upcoming referendum and parliamentary election.
Kyrgyzstan hosts the Manas U.S. military air base, a crucial support center supplying forces fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Bakiyev's government vowed to close the base last year, but later agreed to let U.S. forces stay after raising the rent to $63 million from $17 million.
In recent weeks, operations at Manas have been hindered by a dispute over the interim government's decision to tax fuel sold to the base.
The U.S. military says it has stopped refueling tanker planes at Manas while the fuel prices are renegotiated, but flights to ferry military personnel and supplies to and from Afghanistan have continued.