Kyrgyzstan prepares for referendum despite warnings

Kyrgyzstan prepares to hold a referendum on a new constitution, defying warnings the poll risked sparking a resurgence of this month’s deadly inter-ethnic violence.

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The authorities cancelled a curfew in the southern city of Osh that was the epicentre of the violence which killed at least 275 people to pave the way for the vote and insisted that the poll would go ahead.

The referendum is the centrepiece of the interim government’s blueprint for Kyrgyzstan after the ousting of president Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April riots and officials have said the latest violence was aimed at derailing the vote.

The deadly clashes between the majority Kyrgyz and minority Uzbek populations forced tens of thousands from their homes and prompted the imposition of a round-the-clock curfew in the region.

“The situation in the south of Kyrgyzstan is still tense but there are not the kind of events that make it impossible to stop the curfew for one day,” said Kyrgyzstan’s interim leader Roza Otunbayeva.

“We have the capacity to ensure the security of people in the referendum,” she told reporters in the capital Bishkek. Polls were due to open at 0200 GMT on Sunday.

In Osh, many residents were vowing to cast their votes in the referendum although others said it was too early to hold the poll.

“I will go and vote so that life gets better and these events are never repeated,” said Aftanguel Aidaraliyev, a Kyrgyz resident of Osh, where banks and shops were already reopening after the end of the curfew.

But fellow resident Ogozgul Bektanova said: “The situation has still not normalised. I will not go and vote, I am not ready for that and the city is not ready either.”

New constitution proposed

The new constitution proposed in the referendum would significantly reduce the powers of the president and make the country Central Asia’s first parliamentary republic.

The referendum would set the stage for parliamentary elections that authorities have scheduled for early September in an effort to bring in a permanent government as quickly as possible.

While Otunbayeva has repeatedly insisted the vote will go ahead nationwide and urged a “yes” vote, observers have warned that the holding of the referendum is dangerous at the current time.

The government’s decision to proceed with the referendum threatens to make the situation “even more volatile”, Human Rights Watch said in a statement on Saturday.

“The interim government has not announced how it will ensure that refugees and individuals who lost their identification documents in the violence will be able to vote, raising concerns that the referendum will provoke new violence.”

OSCE security concerns

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the West’s main election monitoring body, said it will not send a planned mission of 300 observers to the Kyrgyz vote because of security concerns.

But US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said Washington was hoping for a “fair and transparent referendum” that could be “an effective step in the path towards democratic governance in Kyrgyzstan,” he said.

Large-scale violence has ceased and authorities said Saturday that all of those who fled the violence to neighbouring Uzbekistan – over 75,000 people – have now returned. But tensions remain high in the south.

Worst ethnic violence in two decades

The clashes were the worst ethnic violence to hit the impoverished country since it gained independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union nearly two decades ago.

Victims of the unrest have told AFP that the violence was a brutal and orchestrated campaign by armed Kyrgyz militias targeting Uzbeks, who make up about 14 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s population of 5.3 million.

The health ministry Saturday raised the official death toll to 275 but officials have admitted that many killed were not registered and have said the real death toll could have been as high as 2,000.

Interim deputy interior minister Baktybek Alymbekov said Saturday that authorities had began to exhume the bodies of victims from mass graves and temporary burial sites.

“It is necessary to exhume bodies, which we have started to do. It is possible that some were hastily buried before securing of troubled areas and were killed because they were witnesses to crimes,” he said.

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