The first airlifts of aid have arrived for tens of thousands of people who fled deadly ethnic blood-letting in Kyrgyzstan amid warnings it stands on brink of humanitarian catastrophe.
With flags at half mast, the shattered country began three days of national mourning for the nearly 190 killed in the violence that erupted last week between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the south of the country.
Neighbouring Uzbekistan received more than 75,000 refugees from the fighting between ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, but later said it would only accept the sick and wounded, leaving thousands more desperate to flee marooned on the border.
“What is happening is already a tragedy and it could become a catastrophe,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres told German radio.
Severine Chappaz, deputy head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), described the situation as “an immense crisis”.
Around 3,000 people were found by ICRC workers in a single building complex in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh, he said. All were seeking food as well as nappies for an estimated 500 children.
An uneasy calm held over Osh and another southern city, Jalalabad, where many areas have been reduced to ruins by the fighting, but artillery fire overnight in Osh underlined the tensions.
A plane carrying 800 tents from the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) has arrived in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan, officials said.
Another plane arrived later in the day and UNHCR said a total of six planes would be dispatched to bring a total of 240 tonnes of UNHCR emergency relief items by the end of the week.
Meanwhile, three cargo jets from the Russian emergencies ministry carrying tents and blankets arrived in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, Russian state media reported.
Refugees on both sides of the border have recounted horrific stories of torture and rape at the hands of heavily armed mobs who they accuse of conducting a brutal campaign to push ethnic Uzbeks out of Kyrgyzstan.
On the Kyrgyz side of the border outside Osh, several hundred people were still waiting in vain in blistering heat to pass through the border.
They sought to pass Uzbek border guards messages to loved ones through the barbed wire.
“We are not receiving aid. We are sleeping in the street with the children, even in the rain,” said Mohidil, a woman in her 40s who fled the Uzbek district of Osh. said.
“We cannot return home. It is too dangerous. Our houses have been burned down. We have no confidence in the army. Osh has been transformed into a cemetery,” said Gulia, another woman aged 30.
UN childrens agency UNICEF has already sent blankets and medical kits from Tashkent to Kyrgyzstan. But refugees have complained bitterly they are not being looked after.
Authorities in Osh began cleaning up the streets as basic foodstuffs were being sold from trucks around the city amid a massive military presence.
With the full impact of the humanitarian crisis becoming clear, Robert Blake, the top US diplomat for the region, was to visit on Wednesday the Uzbek capital Tashkent and then the Ferghana Valley on the Kyrgyz border.
Under orders from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Blake “will be in Bishkek on Friday and Saturday for direct consultations with the Kyrgyz government,” State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said.
“There is in fact an emerging humanitarian crisis in Kyrgyzstan and we are prepared to respond further to that,” the spokesman added.
The Kyrgyz interim government that replaced toppled president Kurmanbek Bakiyev earlier this year has been exposed as ill-equipped to deal with the turmoil and unable to control the south.
In am impassioned statement, it blamed Bakiyev for hiring “provocateurs” to instigate the deadly riots and bemoaned a lack of international support, saying: “We were left alone with the enemy in the most difficult days.”
UNHCR says at least 200,000 people have been displaced within Kyrgyzstan along with the 75,000 who fled to Uzbekistan.
According to the latest casualty toll, at least 187 people have been killed and around 2,000 injured in ethnic clashes. Kyrgyz officials have also said another six refugees have died in hospital in Uzbekistan.
The country’s health ministry said the number of deaths from the clashes could be higher as many families were choosing to bury their dead bypassing official morgues.
The riots were the worst inter-ethnic clashes to hit the impoverished Central Asian state since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Uzbeks make up 14 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s population of 5.3 million.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev sent troops to Osh after hundreds of people were killed in similar riots in the 1990s.