BISHKEK -- President Almazbek Atambaev called on citizens of Kyrgyzstan to preserve unity and peace as the Central Asian country marked the fifth anniversary of deadly clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in its volatile south.
In a statement on June 10, Atambaev said, "Kyrgyz families that saved Uzbeks and Uzbek families that saved Kyrgyz people have proven that the most important thing is not their ethnicity but their human nature and dignity."
"Nobody except us is able to preserve peace and prosperity in Kyrgyzstan," Atambaev said at a ceremony in the capital, Bishkek. "The unity of the country and the nation starts from each home, each street, each village and city."
More than 400 people, mostly Uzbek, were killed and tens of thousands were displaced during the ethnic clashes in Osh and another southern city, Jalal-Abad, in June 2010. Dozens of people remain missing.
Atambaev said the "organizers" of the violence “will sooner or later be held responsible," blaming former President Kurmanbek Bakiev and "his associates" -- as he has in the past.
The bloodshed followed Bakiev’s ouster in an uprising in April 2010. It raised fears of a descent into violent chaos in Kyrgyzstan, a poor nation of 5.6 million that was an important link in the U.S. and NATO supply line to nearby Afghanistan at the time.
Bakiev had himself come to power in an uprising in the politically volatile ex-Soviet republic in 2005. He fled the country when he was chased from power and has been living in Belarus, along with some of his relatives.
At the ceremony in Bishkek, in northern Kyrgyzstan, Atambaev handed awards such as presidential watches to a dozen citizens of different ethnic backgrounds who sheltered and saved families on both sides of the ethnic divide in 2010.
"Today, we are awarding those who in fact by their real deeds have been strengthening the unity of the nation of Kyrgyzstan," Atambaev said.
He condemned nationalist activists and groups, calling them "false patriots."
"Our national heroes are not those who call themselves patriots and incite ethnic hatred, but those who help their neighbors no matter what ethnicity they are," Atambaev said.
Ethnic Uzbeks, most of whom live in the south, make up some 14 percent of the population of Kyrgyzstan, which also has a sizable ethnic Russian minority.
In a statement on its website, the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek called on Kyrgyzstan to pursue unity, the rule of law, and racial and religious accord.
The embassy said that since the 2010 violence, the "people and government of Kyrgyzstan have made efforts...to promote accountability, stability, and unity, and will continue to do so."
"By addressing differences in the open space of democracy -- with respect for the rule of law and a place for people of every race and every religion -- conflicts that once divided this nation may ultimately become a source of strength and lasting stability for all the people of Kyrgyzstan," it said.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is on a trip to Central Asia and is expected to visit Kyrgyzstan on June 10-11.