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Thursday, August 24, 2006

Kyrgyzstan under fire over Uzbek abductions

BISHKEK/ALMATY, Aug 24 (Reuters) - Kyrgyzstan came under renewed fire from the West on Thursday over reports that Uzbek refugees who fled to its territory to escape a bloody crackdown by troops in Uzbekistan were being forcibly returned home.

The West believes Uzbek refugees may face torture and execution at home. Kyrgyzstan this month was criticised when it extradited five Uzbeks. International organisations said since then more people have been seized.

"The United States is very concerned by reports that two officially registered Uzbek refugees were forcibly removed from their homes in Osh, Kyrgyzstan," the U.S. embassy in Bishkek said in a statement.

"According to information provided by UNHCR (the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and Kyrgyz non-governmental organisations, these two refugees are currently being held in a detention centre in Andizhan, Uzbekistan."

Kyrgyz authorities were not available for comment.

Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan's main gas supplier, has pressed its smaller neighbour to return the refugees, saying it has evidence they are criminals.

Hundreds of people fled to Kyrgyzstan in May 2005 when witnesses said they saw troops kill hundreds of men, women and children in Andizhan when they fired on a crowd of people.

Uzbekistan says 187 people died in the Andizhan clashes and that most of the victims were armed extremists whose aim was to overthrow the government and establish an Islamic caliphate.


Rights groups accused Kyrgyzstan of allowing Uzbek agents to secretly seize the refugees -- a tactic they said Kyrgyzstan used to distance itself from the abductions.

Cholpon Zhakupova, the refugees' lawyer, said about 90 Uzbek asylum seekers were currently living in southern Kyrgyzstan.

"People are scared. The authorities keep saying they have nothing to do with the disappearances. But this is unacceptable. It's just like kidnapping," she said.

The UNHCR said it was "gravely concerned". Five refugees, including an opposition activist, have disappeared in south Kyrgyzstan over past weeks, it said.

It cited witnesses as saying some abductors introduced themselves as police officers while others drove cars with Uzbek number plates. It said one family had to move to the Kyrgyz capital after police tried to break into their house.

"All these facts were reported in UNHCR letters to the Ministry of Internal Affairs. We have also shared these alarming developments with other authorities, however no reaction has followed so far," the UNHCR said.

The UNHCR also said that 41 refugees who had been granted asylum in the United States after fleeing Andizhan had decided to return to their homeland.

"We have no evidence there was any kind of pressure on them. Apparently it's their free decision to go back," Helene Caux, an UNHCR spokeswoman, said by telephone from Geneva.
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