KARA DARYA, Kyrgyzstan – Ignoring their pleas for asylum, Kyrgyzstan (search) has expelled scores of Uzbeks who fled the unrest in their country, a Kyrgyz official said Monday, but other refugees said they'd decided to return home so they could continue their struggle against the government.
"We have nothing to lose," said Khasan Shakirov, surrounded by several dozen other Uzbek refugees at their tent camp near the border town of Kara Darya. "We only have our lives, and we will sacrifice them for freedom."
Shakirov and many other refugees in the camp said they would march on the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, to push for the removal of President Islam Karimov (search), whom they accuse of ordering troops to fire at demonstrators in the eastern city of Andijan (search) on May 13.
Karimov blamed Islamic rebels for the unrest and denied that troops had fired on civilians.
He has rejected opposition and rights activists' claims that more than 700 were killed in the violence and stonewalled Western calls for an international investigation. The government said 169 were killed in Andijan.
About 500 refugees who settled in a tent camp in Kyrgyzstan last week wrote a collective letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search), begging for protection amid fears that the Kyrgyz authorities would cave in to Uzbek pressure and expel them.
The Kyrgyz government said Sunday it wasn't going to provide political asylum for all of the camp residents.
"We don't consider them refugees," Almambet Matubraimov, acting Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev's envoy to southern Kyrgyzstan, told The Associated Press. "We are trying to send them back."
Kyrgyz military Col. Abdumajid Abdurakhimov, who is in charge of security at the refugee camp, said Monday that authorities handed over 85 Uzbeks who had tried to cross into Kyrgyzstan since the violence erupted.
Abdurakhimov said that letting more Uzbeks cross the border and stay could trigger a much bigger exodus from Uzbekistan than impoverished Kyrgyzstan could handle, but acknowledged there were concerns about the safety of returnees.
"If we had let them all come, their number here (at the camp) would have been 10 times higher, 5,000 instead of 500," Abdurakhimov said.
He said that Uzbek authorities had set up a camp to process the returnees and those without criminal records would be let go.
"Personally, I feel that they treat them very cruelly there," he said.
The U.N. refugee agency has strongly urged Kyrgyzstan to provide a shelter for all Uzbeks fleeing violence and promised assistance.
"Our official position is that according to conventions signed by Kyrgyzstan, people should be given the right to apply for asylum," said Vanno Noupech, the representative at the camp for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (search). "We appealed to the Kyrgyz government to open the border and give these people an opportunity to file for asylum."
However, Kyrgyzstan feels strong pressure from its neighbor Uzbekistan, which already has admonished Kyrgyz officials for letting refugees cross the border and allegedly encouraging Islamic extremists.
Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have eyed one another with suspicion and, sometimes, open enmity.
Their borders meet along with Tajikistan's in the densely populated Fergana Valley (search) in a jigsaw imposed by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in efforts to divide and conquer Central Asia's many ethnic groups.
In June 1990, hundreds were killed in a spasm of fighting between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. With memories of that violence still vivid and lacking much information about what happened in Andijan, most Kyrgyz feel little sympathy for Uzbek refugees.
In pain over the loss of relatives and feeling cornered by the authorities, many refugees said Monday they would march home even if it means death.
"So much blood was spilled that the dead won't forgive us," said one refugee, Alisher, who gave only his first name, probably out of fear for his relatives' safety. "We will demand that Karimov step down. His hands are covered with blood."
Shakirov said the refugees hope that their march home would encourage other Uzbeks to rise against the government. "It's better to die free than to be a refugee," he said.