Kyrgyzstan's interim authorities have mobilized army reserves and authorized troops to shoot to kill in the southern cities of Jalal-Abad and Osh, where at least 79 people have died in three days of violence.
The Kyrgyz Health Ministry has said that in addition to those killed, more than 1,060 people have been injured since the clashes began late on June 10 in the city of Osh and nearby areas. Late on June 12, the violence was reported to have spread to Jalal-Abad, where a mob burned a university and took over a police station, according to the Associated Press.
Thousands of ethnic Uzbeks are reported fleeing the cities. The Human Rights Watch group, which has a monitor in Osh, said in a statement that Kyrgyz gangs have apparently been targeting Uzbek neighborhoods and that many Uzbek-owned homes, shops and restaurants have been burned.
Reports said there are also concerns about a shortage of food due to the unrest.
The interim government announced a curfew and a state of emergency in the southern city of Jalal-Abad and Osh, and agreed that security forces could use lethal force to defend civilians.
Roza Otunbaeva, the head of Kyrgyzstan's interim government, told reporters today there are "some inside forces" who want to destabilize the country.
Earlier today, Otunbaeva said she had sent a letter to the Russian government asking Moscow to help resolve the ongoing conflict in Osh, and that she welcomed help from other countries.
"We have appealed to friendly countries,” Otunbaeva said. “Since yesterday, the situation has been spiraling out of control and we need some kind of [help from] third forces, from a third country, a country other than Kyrgyzstan. We need the help of another [country's] armed forces to pacify the situation."
Moscow responded that it is sending humanitarian aide to Kyrgyzstan, but will not send troops under the current circumstances.
"This is an internal conflict and Russia does not yet see the conditions for its participating in resolving it," presidential spokeswoman Natalya Timakhova told Russian news agencies.
The interim government also appealed today to retired police and army officers to travel to Osh to prevent ethnic clashes. The 24.kg news agency quotes government spokesman Azimbek Beknazarov as saying "the authorities will be grateful for any [retired officer] volunteers who are ready to help prevent civil war in the south of Kyrgyzstan."
The clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbek youth have spilled over into battles between bigger groups as law enforcement to restrain them.
The interim government has declared a state of emergency in the area after sending in troops along with armored vehicles and helicopters hours after the violence broke out in the south.
RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service correspondent in Osh, Alisher Toksonbaev, says gunfire can still be heard in the city today, and that many Osh residents are fleeing the city.
"There are barricades everywhere in the city [made by local people], and they don't let journalists pass,” Toksonbaev said. “Highways connecting Osh with Jalal-Abad province are almost completely closed. The city is under blockade."
Electricity and gas supplies were cut off in Osh since June 11 and public transportation is not functioning. The city's bazaar has been set alight, as were many other buildings downtown, Toksonbaev reports.
Several residential houses were reportedly set on fire, including houses in Uzbek neighborhoods.
There are extensive reports about clashes between the local Kyrgyz and the area's sizeable Uzbek minority. Kyrgyzstan's interim authorities accused "destructive" elements of instigating interethnic violence in the country.
Andrea Berg, a Central Asia researcher for international group Human Rights Watch, expressed concern about reported attacks on ethnic Uzbeks, and called on Kyrgyz authorities to take "urgent action to protect all groups in southern Kyrgyzstan from ethnic reprisals in the wake of recent rioting."
"Last night the situation was calm in the area where I've been staying,” Berg told RFE/RL from Osh. “However, I have information from my acquaintances living in Uzbek neighborhoods near the main railway station and provincial hospital, who say the situation there is appalling. They say some drunken Kyrgyz came to the area -- and they are not local Kyrgyz -- and that they were killing people. Now I have such information from two sources that Uzbeks, in big groups both in cars and by foot, are fleeing toward Uzbekistan's border."
Interim authorities said today a border point with Uzbekistan near Osh is open from the Kyrgyz side.
RFE/RL correspondent Toksonbaev said "there are many masked men moving in the city, who appeared to be shooting both at Uzbeks and Kyrgyz."
"They speak both Kyrgyz and Uzbek perfectly, so it's very confusing and difficult to determine who these men are," he said.
"Soldiers and police forces move only in the city center and areas where tension is high and people call for help. But men in black masks are seen in all parts of the city. They come, shoot, and leave. Even the police and forces from the Defense Ministry are not able to hunt them down," Toksonbaev said.
The turmoil has spread to the capital Bishkek, where at least 27 people have reportedly been hospitalized since clashes overnight.
Local media reported that authorities in the capital have been trying to stop groups of people -- mostly young men -- from going to Osh. Dozens of angry people reportedly gathered around the parliament building today, demanding that authorities to provide them with vehicles to go to Osh, saying they wanted to protect their relatives in the south.
Another group of men, mostly natives of the southern provinces working at the capital's Osh Bazaar, were also trying to get to the southern city.
Interim officials were reportedly telling the men to leave it to law-enforcement forces to restore order in the south.
The situation has been unstable in the south since the ouster of the former President Kurmanbek Bakiev in the aftermath of a popular uprising in April that led to regime change in Bishkek.
Support for Bakiev has been strongest in the south, where the president hails from.
Dubbed the country's "southern capital," Osh -- with a population of some 220,000 -- is the second largest city in Kyrgyzstan.
Written by Farangis Najibullah with material from RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service