BISHKEK, July 28 (Reuters) - Human rights activists on Thursday urged Kyrgyzstan's young government not to send back Uzbek refugees who fled their homeland after troops bloodily crushed a protest in May.
More than 400 Uzbeks who sought refuge in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan are to be resettled in Canada, the United States and other countries.
But there are concerns about the fate of another 29 still held in a local detention centre, some of whom the Uzbek government wants sent back, saying they are criminals who escaped from jail during the May incidents.
"There just can be no talk of handing these people to Uzbekistan," Alexander Petrov, deputy head of the Moscow office of New York-based Human Rights Watch, told Reuters by telephone from the detention centre in the southern Kyrgyz town of Osh.
"In 2003, Uzbekistan was officially recognised as a country making systematic use of torture, and so Kyrgyzstan must respect its international commitments," he said, referring to a report issued that year by a special U.N. rapporteur on torture.
On Wednesday, the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, started airlifting refugees to the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek from a camp in the south.
Witnesses say about 500 people, including many women and children, were killed in the eastern Uzbek town of Andizhan on May 13 when troops and security forces fired on protesters.
The Uzbek authorities say 187 people -- mostly "terrorists and extremists" -- were killed in what they say was a terrorist action orchestrated by foreign forces.
TEST FOR KYRGYZ LEADER
The pressure from his powerful neighbour Uzbekistan is a test for President-elect Kurmanbek Bakiyev who rose to power after a violent "people's revolution" in March.
Tursunbek Akunov, head of the Kyrgyz presidential commission on human rights, said some members of the government supported handing back some of the refugees to Uzbekistan.
But Akunov said he opposed any such move.
"There is no place for double standards," he told a news conference. "We must respect our international obligations."
Late on Wednesday, witnesses saw two Uzbek vehicles used for transporting prisoners in the inner yard of the detention centre in Osh. But after hours of waiting, the trucks returned to Uzbekistan without taking any of the inmates.
In Geneva, UNCHR spokeswoman Astrid Van Genderen Stort said the agency had already transferred 426 refugees to Bishkek and there was a plane waiting in Osh for the detainees.
"We had an accord with the Kyrgyz authorities that they would hand over 25 of the 29 to us, but today they are saying they want to keep 15 for further checks," she said.
In Bucharest, Romanian President Traian Basescu told reporters that the Balkan state was ready to grant temporary shelter to the Uzbek refugees, who were expected to be flown to the country on Thursday night.
"We have refugees from other countries, too, and we don't see this as a problem. It's a humanitarian act," he added.
(Additional reporting by Richard Waddington in Geneva, Antonia Oprita in Bucharest, Hulkar Isamova in Osh and Dmitry Solovyov in Almaty)
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
- For more humanitarian news and analysis, please visit https://www.trust.org/alertnet