Riots in southern Kyrgyzstan killed at least 23 people and injured more than 300, officials said on Friday, as fears grew over a new cycle of violence in the Central Asian nation that hosts US and Russian military bases.
Several buildings across Osh, the country's second-largest city, were ablaze on Friday morning, after witnesses reported hearing sustained gunfire beginning late Thursday. Gangs of young men armed with metal bars and stones attacked shops and set cars alight in the city, local media reported.
Gunfire continued on Friday, although it was not clear who was shooting, residents said.
Many of the injured were being treated for stabbing and gunshot wounds, Health Ministry spokeswoman Yelena Bailinova said. More than 40 were reported in serious condition.
At a security summit in neighboring Uzbekistan, Chinese President Hu Jintao and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev both expressed concern over the disturbances in Osh and promised to support Kyrgyzstan in restoring order.
The violence comes at a crucial time for Kyrgyzstan, a nation of five million people that became independent after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. It is holding a vote June 27 on a new constitution after a mass revolt in April left 85 people dead and led to the overthrow of then-President Kurmanbek Bakiyev.
Quelling the disturbances in Osh will prove a decisive test of the provisional government's ability to control the country and hold new parliamentary elections as scheduled in October. It is unclear what caused the latest round of unrest. Interim President Roza Otunbayeva said the clashes appeared to have been sparked by a local conflict.
Interim authorities swiftly declared a state of emergency in Osh and dispatched armoured vehicles and troops to pacify the situation. But residents said the shooting continued all night and into the morning, with helicopters flying low overhead.
Military commander Bakyt Alymbekov said on Friday the unrest was dying down but he still imposed a curfew from 8 pm to 6 am until June 20.
In an emotional televised address, 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. Medvedev also urged calm, speaking from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit.
"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 US military air base, a crucial support centre supplying forces fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Bakiyev's government vowed to close the base last year, but later agreed to let US 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 US 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.