Officials in Kyrgyzstan say they've lifted a state of emergency imposed in the wake of ethnic violence in its south, amid UN concerns about the risk of fresh tensions in the area.
The country's interim government declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew in parts of the south after bloody riots and ethnic clashes erupted in the southern city of Osh and surrounding areas two weeks ago.
The violence, which soon spread to the neighboring Jalal-Abad province, killed hundreds of people and forced some 400,000 others from their homes. Most of the victims were ethnic Uzbeks, a sizable minority in southern Kyrgyzstan.'Exhaustive' Security Measures
Interim leader Roza Otunbaeva said the state of emergency would end by June 26, as the country geared up for a referendum the following day on a new constitution. "At the same time, we will take exhaustive measures to provide security in towns and villages," Otunbaeva said.
Today, officials quoted by AFP confirmed that the curfew had been lifted overnight.
On June 25, soldiers were casting their ballots, in order to be able to provide that security on voting day.
The new constitution would significantly reduce presidential powers and give more clout to parliament. It also would prevent a single political party from gaining more than 50 percent of parliamentary seats.
Otunbaeva urged people to take part in the referendum, saying bringing order and peace "is impossible without the adoption of a constitution."
Many in the south, however, remain skeptical about the referendum. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has said it would not send short-term observers to monitor the referendum in the south due to a lack of security.
RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reports that a 28-year-old college student, Meerim Pazylova, was shot dead overnight on June 24-25 in Osh for violating the curfew. According to law-enforcement agencies, Pazylova was shot after she refused to obey a police order to stop her car.
A top UN official warned on June 24 that while the situation in Osh and Jalal-Abad had calmed, "interethnic tensions and rumors of impending violence persist."
Amnesty International has blasted Uzbekistan for forcing refugees of the violence to return to Kyrgyzstan, and warned that Kyrgyz authorities have been premature in calling for those people to return to their homes.
The situation in Kyrgyzstan was discussed behind closed doors at the UN Security Council, where council members received a briefing on the crisis from UN Assistant Secretary-General Oscar Fernandez-Taranco.
He underlined concerns about the "impact any renewed violence could have for Kyrgyzstan and the wider region."
Coordinated U.S. Response
The Kyrgyz crisis was also discussed during the June 24 meeting between U.S. and Russian presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev in Washington.
The two presidents said they agreed to coordinate their diplomatic and humanitarian aid efforts in Kyrgyzstan, which hosts both U.S. and Russian military bases.
Medvedev expressed concern that the political situation in the country could spiral out of control.
"We hope the election process [in Kyrgyzstan] will produce a viable government that is capable of resolving the tasks that the state confronts now. Otherwise Kyrgyzstan will face degradation and, unfortunately, possible division," Medvedev said.
"And all of us are concerned that radicals may come to power under such conditions and then we'll have to face the same tasks that are now being solved in other regions -- I mean, for example, the tasks that are being solved in Afghanistan now."
Obama and Medvedev discussed the situation in Kyrgyzstan
Medvedev added that, as chairman of a regional security group made up of former Soviet states -- the Collective Security Treaty Organization -- he is prepared to act if conditions justify sending a peacekeeping force.
CSTO Secretary General Nikolai Bordyuzha, who visited Kyrgyzstan on June 25, told reporters that the CSTO council has established a temporary working group led by General Vladimir Berezhnoi. He said the group includes representatives from all CSTO member states and will be stationed in Osh and Jalal-Abad.
Bordyuzha also promised "assistance" to Kyrgyzstan's law-enforcement agencies, although he did not offer specifics.
"We believe that Kyrgyzstan has the [security and military] personnel today to act on its territory on its own," Bordyuzha said. "[Kyrgyz] law-enforcement agencies need assistance and that assistance will be provided. All presidents [of CSTO member states] have said they will provide as much law-enforcement assistance to Kyrgyzstan as possible."
The situation in southern Kyrgyzstan has been tense since the country's previous President Kurmanbek Bakiev was toppled in the aftermath of an antigovernment uprising in Bishkek in April.
The interim government has blamed Bakiev supporters for financing and fueling violence in the south, a region where support for Bakiev -- a native of Jalal-Abad province -- has been strongest.
On June 24, Kyrgyz officials went further, accusing Bakiev's relatives of colluding with the Taliban and other regional Islamic militants in planning and instigating the ethnic clashes in Osh and Jalal-Abad.
The UN and United States have called for an independent probe into the violence.
written by Farangis Najibullah with RFE/RL's Kyrgyz and Uzbek Service material and agency reports