U.N. agency: Hundreds of Uzbek refugees to be flown out of Kyrgyzstan
BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan – The United Nations started evacuating more than 400 refugees from a camp Wednesday and will fly them to a third country to keep them from being sent home where they fear prosecution, U.N. officials said.The Uzbeks fled to Kyrgyzstan in May after an uprising in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan was violently suppressed by security forces with hundreds slain.Uzbekistan has been pressuring Kyrgyzstan to hand over the refugees, and Kyrgyz officials relented in recent weeks, sending at least 87 of them back.Handing them back drew strong international criticism and prompted the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to begin flying the asylum seekers from southern Kyrgyzstan to the capital, Bishkek, on Wednesday and from there to an unspecified country.UNHCR initially said 455 Uzbeks would be sent to Bishkek, but later the UNHCR mission chief in Kyrgyzstan, Carlos Zaccagnini, told reporters 451 would be flown to the Kyrgyz capital.He declined to comment on the fate of the other four, but the Uzbeks have asked they be turned over. The four were in a group of 29 held in the city of Osh that Uzbek authorities had asked about.A UNHCR officer in Osh, Vitaly Maslovsky, told The Associated Press two buses with Uzbek license plates were seen and expressed fear that the Uzbeks would seek to deport the prisoners.”We are aware of that and are trying to prevent it,” said Zaccagnini.Handing them over to the Uzbeks would be a violation of the 1951 treaty protecting refugees, UNHCR spokeswoman Astrid van Genderen Stort told the AP in Geneva.Two chartered planes made five flights to Bishkek Wednesday transferring 303 refugees from a camp near the city of Jalal-Abad, UNHCR officials said. The remainder are to be flown out on Thursday, the officials said.Zaccagnini said the refugees would leave Kyrgyzstan Friday morning. He refused to disclose the country where they would be taken for security reasons. But an air traffic controller at Bishkek’s airport, Nikolai Yeryomenko, said a Boeing 747 was scheduled to arrive Thursday and take the refugees to Romania early Friday.The Romanian Foreign Ministry said Wednesday it was holding talks with the UNHCR following a request to offer temporary accommodation to “a group of Uzbeks currently in Kyrgyzstan.”Near the airport in Bishkek, dozens of refugees sat on mattresses scattered around the floor of an old, unused building.Rights groups have said more than 750 people died in the May violence in Andijan. Uzbek authorities say, however, that 187 people died, denying that that troops fired on unarmed civilians and claiming the unrest was organized by Islamic terrorists.Uzbekistan’s human rights record has been poor under President Islam Karimov, who has ruled for 16 years and tolerates no dissent. A U.N. report in 2002 concluded that torture was systematic in Uzbek jails.