About 150 Uzbek refugees trying to flee to neighboring Kyrgyzstan after a violent crackdown on protesters in Uzbekistan have been turned back by Kyrgyz authorities, who also warned they could quickly deport others who had previously crossed the border, officials said Monday.
Gulmira Borubayeva, a Kyrgyz border guards service spokeswoman, said that the guards turned back the refugees near the Uzbek villager of Ayim late Sunday.
She said they were denied passage because they had tried to bypass existing border crossings.
Thousands of terrified refugees converged on a border crossing at the village of Barash, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of the violence-torn city of Andijan where government troops put down a protest Friday, killing scores and maybe hundreds. More than 500 made it to Kyrgyzstan, setting up a tent camp in a field just across the border.
A U.N. refugee agency team that inspected the camp in the Suzak region of Kyrgyzstan said that most of the 560 Uzbeks who arrived there Saturday were men. The UNHCR said that 18 of them were wounded.
Borubayeva said Monday that 537 Uzbek residents had crossed the border seeking help.
Almambet Matubraimov, acting Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev's envoy to southern Kyrgyzstan, said that talks were under way to return the Uzbek refugees home.
Myrzykan Subanov, the head of the Kyrgyz border guard service, said that the Uzbeks who had fled to Kyrgyzstan were being provided with assistance but would not be given refugee status, the Interfax news agency reported. He said that talks with Uzbek officials on their deportation could be completed in two days.
Borubayeva, however, denied the Interfax report, saying that government agencies were still discussing the status of Uzbek citizens in the tent camp. Kyrgyz and Uzbek officials were set to discuss the issue in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh later Monday.
"We're not considering expelling the Uzbeks back to Uzbekistan right now," she told The Associated Press.
A decision to shelter the refugees could badly strain Kyrgyzstan's relations with the government of Uzbek President Islam Karimov, who has said that leaders of protests in Andijan had taken inspiration from Kyrgyzstan, where protesters ousted the unpopular leader in March.
KADYR TOKTOGULOV, Associated Press Writer