BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan – An independent, international probe into ethnic bloodshed in southern Kyrgyzstan reported Tuesday that the military handed out weapons to Kyrgyz mobs who attacked minority Uzbeks last summer.
The Kyrgyzstan Inquiry Commission's conclusion that security forces were complicit in the violence which killed hundreds of people last summer is expected to rekindle the ferocious debate over the deadly unrest.
In its most damning comments, the report suggested that attacks by Kyrgyz mobs on Uzbek neighborhoods "if proven beyond reasonable doubt in a court of law, would amount to crimes against humanity."
The long-awaited inquiry was led by Finnish politician Kimmo Kiljunen.
More than 400 people, mainly minority ethnic Uzbeks, were killed in a frenzy of violence in June 2010 that rocked the southern cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad and forced hundreds of thousands of Uzbeks to flee their homes. While government officials don't agree on the precise number of people killed, the KIC report estimated the tally at around 470.
The commission called for more government investigations into the violence.
In response, the government mounted a spirited defense of its actions Tuesday and complained that the report disproportionately blamed the ethnic Kyrgyz community, warning it could fuel more discontent.
The investigation displays "an overwhelming tendency that only one ethnic group has committed crimes, ignoring the victims and deaths of this very group, and portraying the other group solely as defenseless victims," the government said in a statement.
Kyrgyzstan, a Central Asian nation that hosts both U.S. and Russian air bases, has been unsettled by political instability and violence since the April 2010 overthrow of authoritarian President Kurmanbek Bakiyev amid anger over corruption and stagnating living standards.
The KIC report criticized the interim government that took over from Bakiyev for failing to properly train military forces. Many observers say the interim government's weak grip over the south, a former Bakiyev stronghold, limited its ability to guarantee security during that time.
Kiljunen's team traced the roots of the ethnic tensions back to when Kyrgyzstan was still a Soviet republic. In the dying years of the Soviet Union, competition between largely balanced ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbek populations for land and financial opportunities became acute, the report said. That sparked clashes in southern Kyrgyzstan in 1990 that left more than 300 dead and has remained the cause of deep mistrust between the two communities.
The demographic mix around Osh, which lies on the fringes of neighboring Uzbekistan's fertile Ferghana Valley, is a product of the Soviet policy of drawing national borders without taking into account a region's ethnic makeup.
The KIC report listed a series of factors leading up to the June bloodshed, including political instability, historical tensions, and rampant criminality in the Osh region, a key point on the heroin trafficking route from Afghanistan north to Russia.
According to independent accounts, a localized clash between gangs of ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbek on June 10 quickly spiraled into pitched battles and brutal attacks on homes.
The KIC report, however, says there is evidence the military played a more systematic role in attacks on Uzbek neighborhoods, citing armored personnel carriers that appeared to be carrying uniformed soldiers who joined in the attacks.
"Discipline and order is not commensurate with the normal actions of spontaneously rioting civilian crowds," the report said.
The report also said criminal investigations following the unrest appeared to selectively target the Uzbek minority. The people charged or accused of homicide in the attacks included 59 Uzbeks and seven Kyrgyz, the KIC said, even though at least three-quarters of those killed were Uzbeks.
Government officials downplayed suggestions of the military's involvement, saying it condemned, but understood, that a small number of weapons was surrendered at one arms depot in Osh to appease an enraged crowd.
Leonard contributed to this report from Almaty, Kazakhstan.