Kyrgyzstan sends most Uzbek refugees to safety, but concerns linger
BISHKEK, July 27 (AFP) - Officials announced Wednesday that 451 Uzbeks who fled to neighbouring Kyrgyzstan after a bloody crackdown in Uzbekistan were being sent to safety in third states and not back to Uzbekistan as the authoritarian government there wanted.
However, even as the refugees gathered at Bishkek airport, the UN refugee agency reported that Uzbek officials were pressing for custody over 12 other fugitives, held in the Kyrgyz border town of Osh.
There was no official information on where the 451 Uzbeks, who were among those who fled violently suppressed riots in the town of Andijan in May, were being flown.
The representative for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Carlos Zaccagnini, said only that "the UNHCR is currently making a humanitarian evacuation in which we want to take out 451 people from Kyrgyzstan."
However, a Kyrgyz official who asked not to be named said that "refugees will be divided into small groups among Scandinavian countries, Australia, Canada and Germany." Other officials said Romania would be a first destination.
Canada and Romania have confirmed having been in contact with UNHCR over the refugees.
Romanian authorities are looking into the possibility of accommodating the refugees, said the national refugee agency.
"Talks are underway with the UNHCR and a decision will be made within the next few days," agency spokesman Radu Mircea said.
Human rights groups say hundreds of people were killed by Uzbek government troops in Andijan as they put down an uprising on May 13.
The hardline Uzbek government says the toll was 187 and blames the violence on Islamic militants. It also says that 231 of the fugitives were in fact "terrorists" and has called for their return, prompting a strong protest from the United Nations and human rights groups, which say the Uzbek authorities regularly torture prisoners.
There were conflicting reports over the fate of the 12 refugees sought by Uzbekistan, who are among a group of 29 refugees being detained in the Kyrgyz town of Osh, near the Uzbek border.
Zaccagnini said that 25 were set to fly to the Kyrgyz capital on Thursday and that negotiations with Kyrgyz and Uzbek authorities over the fate of the last four were continuing.
However, UNHCR official Astrid van Genderen Stort said in Geneva that "the Uzbek military have moved near the detention centre in Osh."
"They have asked for 12 of the 29 in detention to be handed over," she told AFP. Van Genderen Stort was not able to say if the Uzbek military had crossed the frontier.
Kyrgyzstan's recently elected President Kurmanbek Bakiyev said last week that the 12 might be sent back to Uzbekistan, despite the UNHCR's objections.
However, a UNHCR representative in Osh said that two Uzbek prison vans which had arrived in Osh then left empty.
Van Genderen Stort said: "We have full confidence that the Kyrgyz authorities will be dealing with this matter in the appropriate manner."
"We want to stress that all 29 in detention are of concern to UNHCR and handing over any of them will be in violation of the 1951 (refugee) convention."
Rachel Denber, the deputy director for the Europe/Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch, said: "If they are taken back to Uzbekistan they face a very, very high risk of torture. Under international law you are not supposed to send people back to places where they could face torture."
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