BISHKEK -- One thing is clear from the testimony of witnesses of the ethnic violence that killed hundreds and possibly thousands of people in Kyrgyzstan last month: most of the victims were from the ethnic Uzbek minority.
More than a thousand of their burned and looted houses stand ruined in the epicenter of the violence, the city of Osh, amid mostly unscathed Kyrgyz buildings. It was also mainly Uzbeks who fled -- hundreds of thousands of them, across the border to refugee camps in Uzbekistan -- after they were attacked by Kyrgyz mobs, and many say Kyrgyz police and military units.
But Almazbek Atambaev doesn't want people to talk about that. In his sprawling office in parliament, the interim government's dapper deputy prime minister -- a top candidate to lead the country as a possible future prime minister -- criticizes Western journalists for reporting about the overwhelming number of Uzbek deaths.
"We won't allow divisions in our society," he replies when asked to clarify the figures.
Atambaev says opponents of the interim government's drive to "build the first democracy in Central Asia" provoked Kyrgyz and Uzbeks to kill each other. "The attempt to forestall the establishment of that kind of state explains all the hysteria, and a riot that was organized and paid for," he says. "It's not even close to ethnic cleansing."Kyrgyzstan's Only Hope
There's no shortage of conspiracy theories about what prompted ethnic tensions in southern Kyrgyzstan to explode with such violence last month. But the government says apportioning blame to one or another group will prompt only further violence. Critics say that's because the government is tacitly backing a wave of nationalism and that a credible independent investigation is the country's only hope of moving beyond the violence toward a viable democracy.
Former President Kurmanbek Bakiev in Minsk last month
The government came to power in April, after street protests ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiev. He fled to his stronghold in the south before taking refuge in Belarus. Last week, Kyrgyzstan's security agency claimed Bakiev's relatives colluded with the Taliban and other Islamist movements to provoke the violence they hoped would destabilize the new government.
But some believe the government's silence over who started killing whom first reflects more than simply the desire of a weak leadership to avoid rocking the boat. Critics say the country's leaders are covering up their own complicity in the killings and that that's posing a serious threat not only of more violence but to the country's very existence.
Jildiz Jildosheva propounds the most common of the conspiracy theories washing over the capital, Bishkek. The vice president of the Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan Friendship Society says Uzbeks -- who own many businesses and hold significant influence in the south -- were incited to violence by unknown professional mercenaries wearing black T-shirts.
"Local Uzbeks say they were armed in advance and told to take to the streets when a signal was given," Jildosheva says. "They were led to a university dormitory, where many Kyrgyz girls were brutally raped and killed."'That's All Fantasy'
The overwhelming opinion is that Kyrgyz began killing Uzbeks in revenge only after they attempted to seize power and that it's fueling a growing enmity between the two ethnic groups. But a handful of people disagree.
Opposition leader Omurbek Suvanaliev, head of the Ata-Jurt party, is a former interior minister who last month temporarily volunteered to be acting police chief in the Osh region, worst hit by the recent violence. He says the killings broke out spontaneously after a casino fight between Kyrgyz and Uzbek youths, saying there's no evidence of mercenaries or rapes of Kyrgyz women that attackers say prompted them to take revenge.
Omurbek Suvanaliev: "The interim government is acting utterly irresponsibly."
"There's all sorts of talk about Muslim extremists and mercenaries. That's all fantasy," Suvanaliev says. "The interim government is acting utterly irresponsibly."
Suvanaliev says the government invented a "third force" it says prompted the violence to hide its own responsibility. He points to events shortly after Bakiev fled to the south in April. The following month, Bakiev supporters stormed a local administration building in the city of Jalal-Abad, near Osh. Threatened with a regional revolt and unable to rely on the local authorities, the government appealed for help from an Uzbek minority in the south.
Kadyrzhan Batyrov, an Uzbek university director, organized members of his Rodina (Motherland) party to take up arms against Bakiev's supporters. Aziza Abdyrasulova, director of the Kylym Shamy (Torch of the Century) human rights group, says Batyrov then called on his supporters to burn the houses belonging to Bakiev's family.
"I went to the office of [Deputy Prime Minister Omurbek] Tekebaev and begged him to force them to stop. I was crying and pleading, but when Tekebaev picked up the phone all he did was request them to stop," she says. "The interim government was exploiting the ethnic tensions, and it had no right."
The government later opened a criminal case against Batyrov, who fled the region and remains in hiding. Many Kyrgyz now accuse him of organizing last month's violence.'They Pulled Themselves Back'
Abdyrasulova says the May events exacerbated long-standing tensions. But she and other critics have been unwilling to condemn a hard-pressed government with few choices in a region it now barely controls. Many in this relatively free and open society see the current leadership as the best hope for Kyrgyzstan to emerge from the kind of strict authoritarianism that has enveloped its Central Asian neighbors.
Larry Memmott, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek, believes there's a chance the government can succeed, saying general revulsion over last month's violence gives hope the country will pull together.
Destroyed houses in a residential area of the city of Osh on June 18
"In many other countries where this kind of violence occurs, it hasn't limited itself to two or three days, whereas in Kyrgyzstan it did," Memmott says. "They went over the brink, I think you would have to say, into a terrible violent period, but they themselves pulled back, and I think that's a positive sign."
But Memmott and others who worry that competing myths about what sparked last month's killings are threatening possible further violence say any optimism for a stable future relies on a credible independent investigation.
Asked whether she would guarantee such a probe, caretaker President Roza Otunbaeva said the government was putting together a commission that will include Uzbeks.
"Kyrgyzstan wants to compile its own report, but the commission will include international experts," she said. "We understand it has to be credible and trustworthy both here and among the international community."
But there are serious doubts the Uzbek minority and the international community will see a government commission as truly independent. Meanwhile, there are signs nationalism on both sides is growing. Critics say the government's refusal to address the causes of the violence is encouraging Kyrgyz nationalism. It's been helped by the Kyrgyz media, which has blamed the violence on Uzbeks, citing the need to "balance" the Western press.
And there are indications of increasing nationalism among Uzbeks. In Uzbekistan, one of the country's biggest pop stars recently recorded a song blaming Kyrgyz for last month's killing spree, with a video set to gory images of the violence. Although Uzbek President Islam Karimov has publicly backed the Kyrgyz government's version of a "third force," few believe a major pop star could release a controversial song without his authoritarian regime's tacit consent.
If the tensions keep escalating, experts believe, ethnic violence could spill across borders into other parts of Central Asia.
As Otunbaeva selects a new caretaker government that will rule until parliamentary elections tentatively scheduled for October, her allies are splintering, fighting each other and forming their own political parties.
Analyst Mars Sariev says amid such politics, it's hard to conceive the new government will be able to begin addressing the country's ethnic split. "There will be a permanent crisis in the south," he says, "that could flare up anytime."