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49 people dead in Kyrgyzstan riots

Police and soldiers have struggled to stop deadly ethnic clashes in Kyrgyzstan as armed gangs marched on Uzbek neighbourhoods where houses were already burning.

The official death toll climbed to at least 49, with more than 650 people wounded, the Health Ministry said. The real figures may be higher because doctors and human rights workers said ethnic Uzbeks were afraid to seek hospital treatment.

Thousands of ethnic Uzbeks were fleeing towards the nearby border with Uzbekistan.

The violence which broke out in Osh, the country's second-largest city, is the worst since former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was toppled in a bloody uprising in April and fled the country.

It poses a decisive test of the provisional government's ability to control the country, where the US and Russia both have military air bases. The government needs stability to hold a June 27 vote on a new constitution and go ahead with elections for a new parliament in October.

The government declared a state of emergency in and around Osh and dispatched armoured vehicles, troops and helicopters to pacify the situation. Fighting died down overnight but resumed with new strength on Saturday morning.

Fire from heavy machine guns and automatic weapons was heard as troops tried to gain control of roads into the city from the airport, where hundreds of arriving passengers were stranded.

Police and residents said groups of young Kyrgyz men were streaming into Osh by road from other parts of the country and marching toward Uzbek neighbourhoods. They were armed with metal bars and some had automatic weapons.

"Crowds of 100 to 150 people are continually passing my house," said Bakyt Omorkulov, a member of the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, a non-governmental organisation.

He said ethnic Uzbeks in the Cheryomushki and Besh-Kuprik neighbourhoods said their houses were on fire and they were terrified. "They called us and were sobbing into the phone, but what can we do?" Mr Omorkulov said.

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