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Death toll climbs amid renewed fighting in Kyrgyzstan

The death toll in Kyrgyzstan has risen to at least 179 following fresh fighting. Many thousands of refugees are fleeing the ethnic clashes, with the United Nations warning of a possible humanitarian catastrophe.

Ehnic Uzbek refugee near the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon

Ehnic Uzbek refugee near the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon

Ethnic groups in Kyrgyzstan clashed again in overnight battles as the official death toll in the country rose to at least 179, according to a report by the Kyrgyz news agency Akipress, quoting the health ministry.

The ministry said that it expected the actual number of dead to be much higher.

Troops were patrolling streets in the city of Osh on Wednesday morning, following clashes between Kyrgyz groups and the Uzbek minority. The number of civilians forced to flee the violence is now put at 275,000 according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

United Nations Children's Fund UNICEF reports that women, children and the elderly make up more than 90 percent of the refugees. The situation was growing increasingly serious, the head of the UNHCR said on Wednesday.

"What is happening is already a tragedy and it could become a catastrophe." Antonio Guterres said during a visit to Berlin.

Ethnic Uzbeks gather near the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border in southern Kyrgyzstan

Ethnic Uzbeks have been gathering near the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border

"We urgently need to find a political solution ... the country's neighbors and the international community must do everything in their power to help the interim Kyrgyz government restore peace and stability," he told public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk.

Officials in Kyrgyzstan have warned that the ethnic conflict could spread to the country's north and neighboring countries as aid agencies attempt to cope with the humanitarian crisis in the central Asian country.

Some 2,000 people have been wounded in the fighting which erupted last Thursday, according to official figures.

Violence in the southern cities of Osh and Jalalabad has raised fears over the future stability of the country of 5.3 million, where Uzbeks make up 14 percent of the population.

Aid groups working overtime

Uzbekistan has been struggling to deal with a flood of ethnic refugees who crossed the border to escape the unrest.

With around 75,000 refugees already inside Uzbekistan after fleeing the southern cities, authorities said they had closed off the border to prevent that number from swelling. However the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which has been working to get relief supplies into the Central Asian countries, told Deutsche Welle it understood the border has now been reopened.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, warned of catastrophe

"We have this understanding that the border is open. We understand that yesterday it was closed temporarily for the night and now it is open," says UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch. "The UN High Commissioner here in Geneva, Antonio Guterres, has welcomed the Uzbek authorities' decision to open the border and welcome refugees who are seeking asylum in Uzbekistan."

Baloch says that the UNHCR plans to send six relief planes in total with 240 metric tons of supplies to Uzbekistan in the coming days. He said this would be followed by more aid once the UNHCR had established a presence on the ground.

Baloch added that the UNHCR had been experiencing problems in reaching displaced peoples in areas around Osh because of the security situation.

"We had hoped to be able to reach those people. We have some stocks on the ground at the UNHCR warehouse there in Osh and we already have been in touch with the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) to distribute the items we have there, but we understand and we are concerned at the poor security situation in Osh and Jalalabad and other areas which is impeding aid delivery."

Ethnic Uzbeks residences burn after being torched by Kyrgyz

Bodies litter the street as houses burn in Jalabad

Military intervention

Meanwhile, Roza Otunbayeva, the interim president of Kyrgyzstan, said on Tuesday that there was no reason for Russia to intervene by deploying peacekeepers to the crisis region. She said the clashes were beginning to wane and that she hoped that her country's own forces could get the situation under control.

Moscow says it considers the violence in southern Kyrgyzstan an internal matter for that country and has only sent several hundred troops to defend a Russian military base in Kyrgyzstan.

Both Russia and the United States have military installations in the central Asian country, with the US using the strategic position as a hub to support its forces in Afghanistan.

Otunbayeva also said a planned constitutional referendum would go ahead on June 27. She was speaking at a press conference after the EU had warned that the violent clashes threatened to derail the country's reform process.

However this view is not shared by ICRC head of operations for Central Asia and Eastern Europe, Pascale Meige Wagner, who warned "we're far from seeing the end of this crisis."

"We hear extremely worrying stories about people targeted - there is a will to harm and kill in Kyrgzystan."

Author: Nigel Tandy, Darren Mara, Richard Connor (dpa, Reuters, AFP, AP)

Editor: Michael Lawton

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