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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kyrgyzstan's Troops Vote in First Stage of Referendum

OSH, Kyrgyzstan — Kyrgyz soldiers voted Friday in the first stage of a referendum to create what would be Central Asia's only parliamentary democracy, two weeks after ethnic clashes killed more than 250 people.

Nearly 2,000 soldiers filed into polling booths in a university in Osh, the epicenter of the bloodshed, two days before the main round of voting which the interim government hopes will cement its rule in the nation.

“The boys are voting today so they can be on high alert on election day,” said Abdykalyk Boltabayev, a local election commission official.

The interim government, which assumed power after a popular revolt in April overthrew the president, says the vote is crucial to restoring order in the south of the country after violence between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks.

Hundreds of thousands were forced to flee the fighting.

The United States and Russia, which operate military bases in Kyrgyzstan, are anxious that the turmoil does not spread to other parts of Central Asia, a former Soviet region rich in oil and gas and lying on a drug-trafficking route from Afghanistan.

"We hope the electoral process will form a fully fledged government capable of resolving the problems facing the state. Otherwise Kyrgyzstan faces degradation and, unfortunately, it's entirely possible it will split into parts," President Dmitry Medvedev said during a visit to Washington.

"We are all concerned that, in these conditions, radicals could come to power, and then we will have to resolve the same sort of problems that we are tackling in other regions," he said. "For example, the problems being tackled in Afghanistan."

The U.S. embassy in Kyrgyzstan called in a statement for “a fair and transparent referendum as an effective step towards the re-establishment of democracy.”

The Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russia-led grouping of former Soviet republics, was sending helicopters and armored vehicles to lend support, secretary general Nikolai Bordyuzha told reporters in Kyrgyzstan's capital, Bishkek.

Interim leader Roza Otunbayeva has rejected some calls from within her government to postpone the referendum, which she needs to gain legitimacy and to pave the way for formal diplomatic recognition from other countries.

"In the worst-case scenario, staging the referendum could lead to another outbreak of violence, most likely instigated by groups in the south that have an interest in destabilizing the interim government," Eurasia Group analyst Ana Jelenkovic said.

"Even the best-case scenario — minimal violence and sufficient turnout — may improve stability only marginally, as the interim government is nearly paralyzed by internal conflicts," she said.

Organizing the vote in volatile regions in the south — separated from the more industrialized north by a mountain range — will be a challenge for interim leaders, who have not fully controlled the stronghold of ousted president Kurmanbek Bakiyev.

The clashes have deepened divisions between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, whose populations are roughly equal in the south. Both sides say they were attacked by the other. Otunbayeva has said up to 2,000 people may have been killed.

The government did not intervene as the violence erupted June 10. Ethnic Uzbeks say government troops sided with the attackers. Many Uzbek neighborhoods of Osh were burned down.

"There is still a lot of tension. There could be provocative acts," local election commission chief Mukhtar Paizyldayev said.

There are 82 polling stations and 150,000 registered voters in Osh, he said. But counting the population will be difficult in a region from which 400,000 mainly ethnic Uzbeks have fled.

United Nations aid agencies said nearly all of the 100,000 refugees who crossed the border into Uzbekistan had returned but were in dire need of shelter because their homes had been destroyed.