The UN on Wednesday began relocating hundreds of Uzbek refugees who had sought sanctuary in Kyrgyzstan, moving them from a camp near the Uzbek border to the Kyrgyz capital, from which they are expected to be airlifted out of the country soon.
"We are hoping to take all of the refugees out of the country on the humanitarian flight scheduled for 2am Friday [today]," said Carlos Zaccagnini, the chief of the UN high commissioner for refugees' mission in Kyrgyzstan.
The refugees, survivors of the lethal crackdown on May 13 in the Uzbek city of Andijon, have been a source of diplomatic tension for months as Uzbekistan, a country that practices torture, put pressure on Kyrgyzstan for their return.
Their ultimate destination is not clear. Speaking by telephone from the UN offices in Geneva, Astrid van Genderen Stort, the spokeswoman for the high commissioner, said the refugees would be flown to a third country, where they would be processed for resettlement elsewhere.
She declined to say what nations might take them in, explaining that the governments that were involved in negotiations had asked that they not be publicly identified until the discussions were completed.
A Kyrgyz customs official at Manas International Airport, outside the capital, Bishkek, said the Boeing 747 scheduled to fly the refugees from the country today was bound for Romania.
A spokeswoman for the Romanian Interior Ministry said Romania was among the nations considering accepting the refugees, at least for processing, but added that no decision had been made.
Signs of the tension with Uzbekistan re-emerged Wednesday as Uzbeks in two vehicles crossed the Kyrgyz border, proceeded to a detention center in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh and demanded the return of at least 12 refugees whom Uzbekistan contends are fugitives.
They were among 29 who have been held in the center pending investigation and processing of their refugee applications. Uzbekistan has insisted that they were involved in crimes in the brief and violently suppressed uprising in Andijon in May.
Van Genderen Stort said that the Kyrgyz government had assured the UN that none of the refugees would be turned over to the Uzbek government, but that concerns remained.
In June the Kyrgyz government handed over four refugees to the Uzbeks, prompting international outcry that the government had violated the 1951 Refugee Convention. The fate of the four is unclear.
Zaccagnini said he expected 451 refugees to depart, while van Genderen Stort put the number at 455. The fate of three refugees whom the Uzbeks have accused of killing a prosecutor during the uprising in Andijon, and of a man accused of drug crimes, appears to be the issue involved.
More than 300 refugees were moved from the border region to Manas on Wednesday, Zaccagnini said.
On Monday, during a visit by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the Kyrgyz government announced that the Pentagon could continue using the Manas Air Base, adjacent to the international airport, to support its operations in Afghanistan.
That represented a shift in tone from a statement issued on July 5 by Russia, China, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, which sought to have the US set a timetable to withdraw its military presence from Central Asia.
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