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Marketplace Argument Sparks Bloody Rioting in Soviet Asia; 50 Die

June 6, 1989

MOSCOW (AP) _ Haggling in a Central Asian bazaar over the price of strawberries sparked a spasm of ethnic violence, arson attacks and rampages by ax-wielding mobs in which 50 people were killed, Uzbekistan’s Communist Party chief reported Tuesday.

Rafik Nishanov told lawmakers in Moscow that authorities had re-established ″full control″ in the Fergana Valley 1,500 miles southeast of Moscow following more than a week of bloody clashes between Uzbeks and members of an ethnic Turkish minority, the Meskhi. But he indicated the situation was still explosive.

An Interior Ministry spokesman said 6,000 internal security troops had been sent to restore order in the Fergana Valley, a national center of grape and cotton growing.

Some of the 12,000 Meskhi in the area were evacuated Sunday and Monday to a military garrison to be housed in barracks under guard, the Uzbek leader said in nationally televised remarks. ″They are safe now,″ Nishanov said.

The violence between the two Moslem groups was the latest outbreak of Soviet ethnic unrest, and its roots could be traced to the brutal policies of Josef Stalin, who uprooted the entire population of 300,000 Meskhi from their homeland in Soviet Georgia in November 1944 and deported them to the east under pretext of evacuation as the Germans approached.

The Meskhi began to demand in 1956 that they be allowed to return to Meskhetia, their homeland in the Caucasus, and Nishanov said they had been pressing their demands harder as the country’s new parliament, the Congress of People’s Deputies, meets in Moscow.

Interior Ministry spokesman, Col. Boris Mikhailov, told the Tass news agency the clashes between Uzbeks and the Meskhi Turks began May 23, when a fight provoked by ″extremists″ in the city of Kuvasai near the border of Soviet Kirghizia caused the death of one man and injured 60 others.

Last Saturday, Mikhailov said, ″about 200 hooligans armed with metal rods, sticks and bottles filled with gasoline staged pogroms and set fire to buildings in the town of Tashlak.″ He said ″dozens of cars and houses″ were burned.

The violence was spawned by ″an insignificant, minor conflict″ at a market when a Meskhi Turk rudely spoke to a woman selling fruit whose prices he thought were too high, then knocked over her plate of strawberries, Nishanov said.

″Citizens there perceived this as an insult, and a fight started,″ Nishanov told the Soviet of Nationalities, one of the houses of the bicameral Soviet legislature, during its inaugural session Tuesday.

Tempers enflamed by the marketplace squabble cooled, but Meskhis later attacked a group of Uzbeks and killed one of them, Nishanov said.

Calm was restored, he said. But about a week later, he said, a large group of Uzbeks ranging in age from 15 to 22 and ″in high spirits as a result of alcohol or drugs″ unexpectedly set off to attack the homes where the Meskhi live.

″The Uzbek youth, armed with sticks, chains and axes, beat up people they found on the way and set fire to some homes belonging to Meskhi Turks,″ Nishanov said.

Soviet television reported Monday night that the dispute in the Fergana Valley turned into ″vicious clashes between thousands of furious people.″ It said the violence began as an ethnic dispute, but was fueled by chronic local unemployment.

Nishanov told lawmakers that according to information available Tuesday, about 50 people had been killed, including 35 or more Meskhi Turks, 10 Uzbeks, one ethnic Tadzhik and an ethnic Russian who had been among those who ″restored order.″

Mikhailov told Tass that 200 people suspected of organizing and taking part in the rioting had been detained. A curfew was imposed in the area, Nishanov said.

Komsolmolskaya Pravda, the daily organ of the Komsomol Young Communist League, said a total of 194 people had been hospitalized, and that policemen and party workers were among the casualities. The government daily Izvestia said Interior Ministry troops and officers were also hurt.

Almaz Estekov, a Moslem activist in Moscow, said representatives of the unofficial grassroots movement Berlik in Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital, told him by telephone that 13 policemen had been killed.

But calls from Moscow to the Fergana Valley did not go through Tuesday, and the report could not be independently confirmed.

The Meskhi were used as the principal labor force in constructing the irrigation system in the barren Golodnaya Steppe of north-central Uzbekistan, which was turned into a flourishing agricultural district.

The Meskhi are ethnically related to the Georgians but were under Turkish rule during the 16th and 17th centuries, converted to Islam and adopted many Turkish characteristics. At present some Meskhi consider themselves Turks, while others consider themselves Georgians.

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