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Kyrgyzstan holds referendum despite warnings

International desk |
Update: 2010-06-26 16:26:09

OSH - Kyrgyzstan on Sunday voted on a new constitution aimed at establishing a parliamentary democracy, ignoring warnings that the referendum risked inflaming ethnic tensions after deadly clashes.

The interim authorities have defiantly pressed ahead with the referendum despite horrific clashes between minority Uzbeks and majority Kyrgyz earlier this month that killed hundreds and sparked fears the country faced collapse.

Respectable numbers were showing up to vote in the southern city of Osh -- the epicentre of the violence -- with the situation calm and no reports of unrest, an AFP correspondent reported.

The initial nationwide turnout after the first hours of voting was a robust 26.33 percent, the central election committee said in a statement.

The vote is the centrepiece of the interim government`s blueprint for a new Kyrgyzstan after it came to power amid the April riots that ousted president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who the authorities blamed for June`s violence.

"We will show the world that Kyrgyzstan is united," said interim leader Roza Otunbayeva as she cast her vote in Osh. "We want to heal ourselves from the pain that struck as a result of the tragic events."

Polling stations in the vote, which was being held under the tightest security with thousands of police on duty nationwide, are to close at 8:00 pm (1400 GMT) and first results are expected on Monday.

"I voted `yes` so that the situation gets better. Many Uzbeks have suffered and several members of my family died. I am scared but I came to vote," said Dlora Kazakbayeva, an Uzbek woman, after voting in Osh.

The new constitution -- if adopted -- will significantly reduce the powers of the president and make the former Soviet republic ex-Soviet Central Asia`s first parliamentary democracy in a region notorious for authoritarian leaders.

The referendum will set the stage for parliamentary elections that authorities have scheduled for early September in an effort to bring in a permanent government as quickly as possible.

But several observers have warned that the referendum is dangerous at the current time, with Human Rights Watch saying on Saturday that the referendum threatens to make the situation "even more volatile".

It said the interim government had not moved to allow refugees and individuals who lost their identification documents in the violence to vote, "raising concerns that the referendum will provoke new violence."

The interim government`s deputy leader Omurbek Tekebayev admitted that the list of the voters was the main problems for the referendum and up to 16 percent of the electorate in some regions would not be able to vote.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the West`s main election monitoring body, said it would not send a planned mission of 300 observers to oversee the vote because of security concerns.

However large-scale violence has ceased and authorities said Saturday that all 75,000 people who fled the violence to neighbouring Uzbekistan had now returned.

In the capital Bishkek, the situation was also so far calm with people showing a mixture of scepticism and hope that the vote would create a new future for Kyrgyzstan.

"I will of course vote `yes` as I`m tired of this chaos in the country" said driver Alexander Malevin, 47.

But hairdresser Elvira Sarueva, 28, said: "I never vote in these things because I believe no-one. Only God can put the country on the path of truth."

The clashes were the worst ethnic violence to hit impoverished Kyrgyzstan since it gained independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union nearly two decades ago.

Victims of the unrest have told AFP that the violence was a brutal and orchestrated campaign by armed Kyrgyz militias targeting Uzbeks, who make up about 14 percent of Kyrgyzstan`s population of 5.3 million.

The health ministry Saturday raised the official death toll to 275 but officials have admitted that many of those killed were not registered and have said the real figure could have been as high as 2,000

BDST: 1315 HRS , June 27, 2010

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