BISHKEK, June 17 (Reuters) – Turmoil in Kyrgyzstan offers an ideal breeding ground for Islamist militancy in the Muslim region north of Afghanistan and the government must act quickly to curb any further violence, a U.N. envoy said.
Kyrgyzstan’s ethnically divided south has been turbulent since a revolt in April toppled its president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, and brought an interim government to power.
Russia and the West fear that instability in the ex-Soviet republic, which lies on a major drug trafficking route out of Afghanistan, could produce a safe haven to militants, particularly in the over-populated Ferghana valley.
“There is a threat of extremism in Ferghana valley and, more broadly, in Central Asia as a whole, in the sense that Central Asia borders Afghanistan,” United Nations Special Envoy Miroslav Jenca told Reuters in an interview late on Wednesday.
“There are various extremist organisations … And of course in these circumstances they are finding a fertile ground to filfil their plans.”
At least 191 people have been killed since June 10 in Kyrgyzstan’s south in an outburst of ethnic violence between its two main ethnic groups, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks.
The violence has subsided in the last few days in a country where Russia and the United States have military air bases.
Up to 100,000 people have fled their homes and set up camps in Ferghana valley where Kyrgyzstan borders Uzbekistan.
Humanitarian aid has been flowing to the south but obvservers say it is not reaching many neighourhoods that have barricaded themselves in fear of further violence.
Islamist extremism is rare in Central Asia, a secular region ruled from Moscow until the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991.
But deepening problems such as poverty, illiteracy and people’s growing frustration with their governments have made them more susceptible to Islamist ideas, emboldening radical groups to gain strength in Central Asia.
Those include the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the less radical Hizb ut-Tahrir group but there have been no signs of increased militant activity since the April revolt.
The new leadership plans to hold a referendum on June 27 to vote on constitutional changes. Some officials have suggested Kyrgyzstan delay the poll until the situation stabilises.
“If they (elections) are organised incorrectly then of course that would lead to big problems,” Jenca said.
“The government has to assess whether it can organise the referendum in a way that would be legitimate, so it could be recognised.”
(For more on Kyrgyzstan click on [ID:nLDE65A145])
(Writing by Maria Golovnina; Editing by Michael Roddy)