Russia sent hundreds of paratroopers to Kyrgyzstan on Sunday to protect its military facilities, Interfax reported, as ethnic clashes spread in the Central Asian state, bringing the death toll from days of fighting to 97.
Ethnic Uzbeks in a besieged neighbourhood of Kyrgyzstan’s second city Osh said gangs, aided by the military, were carrying out genocide, burning residents out of their homes and shooting them as they fled. Witnesses saw bodies lying on the streets.
Interfax news agency, citing a security source, said a battalion of Russian paratroopers had arrived in the country on Sunday to help protect Russian military facilities.
A Russian army battalion is usually around 400 men, but Interfax referred to a “reinforced battalion”, which can include as many as 650 troops.
"The mission of the force that has landed is to reinforce the defence of Russian military facilities and ensure security of Russian military servicemen and their families," the source was quoted as saying.
Kyrgyz news website www.24.kg cited a Kyrgyz defence ministry source as saying Russian troops had landed at Kant air base aboard three Russian IL-76 aircraft.
The interim government in Kyrgyzstan, which took power in April after a popular revolt toppled president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, has appealed for Russian help to quell the riots in the south. Bakiyev, exiled in Belarus, said Kyrgyzstan was on the verge of collapse.
"God help us! They are killing Uzbeks like animals. Almost the whole city is in flames," Dilmurad Ishanov, an ethnic Uzbek human rights worker, said by telephone from Osh.
Led by Roza Otunbayeva, the interim government has sent a volunteer force to the south and granted shoot-to-kill powers to its security forces in response to the deadly riots, which began in Osh late on Thursday before spreading to Jalalabad.
The Interior Ministry said the situation in the Osh and Jalalabad regions — strongholds of Bakiyev and his family — remained "complex and tense".
"Residents are calling us and saying soldiers are firing at them. There’s an order to shoot the marauders, but they aren’t shooting them," said ex-parliamentary deputy Alisher Sabirov, a peacekeeping volunteer in Osh. Takhir Maksitov of human rights group Citizens Against Corruption said: "This is genocide."
Renewed turmoil in Kyrgyzstan has fuelled concern in Russia, the United States and neighbour China. Washington uses an air base at Manas in the north of the country, about 300 km from Osh, to supply its forces in Afghanistan.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said he believed 15 Pakistani citizens had been taken hostage and one killed in Osh. About 1,200 Pakistanis, mostly students, live in Kyrgyzstan, though many have returned home for summer holidays.