NPR: This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Hundreds of thousands of Uzbek refugees are fleeing an outbreak of ethnic violence that's left hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people dead in Kyrgyzstan.
We're joined now by Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert Blake. He is in the Kyrgyzstan, capital of Bishkek. Assistant Secretary Blake, thanks so much for being with us.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thanks for inviting me, Scott.
SIMON: And how do you assess the situation there based on what you’ve seen?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, I had the chance to visit two of the camps in the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan where most of these refugees have gone. As you may know, about 90 percent of the refugees there are women and children, and we heard some really horrific tales. Most of them were in tears and told us stories of killings and rapes and mutilations that they had either experienced or witnessed first hand.
SIMON: And I have to ask, Assistant Secretary Blake - we use that phrase ethnic violence. So far, do you have the impression - because the United Nations certainly has said that they find this violence organized - do you have the impression that this is ethnic strife or what amounts to the slaughter of an ethnic group by organized interests?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, I think there's clearly an ethnic dimension to it, but I'm not prepared to say that, you know, there was any kind of ethnic cleansing going on (unintelligible) or anything like that yet. I mean it’s really not clear. The refugees said that many of the attackers were uniformed men who arrived in armored personnel carriers, but there were also people in civilian clothes. The Kyrgyzstan Provisional Government here has attributed the violence to relatives and supporters of former President Bakiyev, who as you know left the country several months ago and has, I think, still ambitions to come back to this country.
But I think all of this underlines the need for an investigation, first of all, by the provisional government itself and perhaps complimented by an international investigation of some sort.
SIMON: When you meet with people in refugee camps, what can you do for them?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, I think the first thing you can do is listen. It was really interesting that as we drove up, immediately all of these women started coming out of their tents and they were really happy to be able to unburden themselves and to tell us their stories. And you know, I reassured them that the Obama administration, first of all, was committed to helping the Uzbek government to meet all of their humanitarian needs. But more importantly, we were committed to ensuring that there would be some sort of investigation and that their stories would be told and that such an investigation would help to figure out what are the conditions that will be necessary to allow their return, their safe and voluntary return. And I think they were they were happy to hear that.
SIMON: Let me pressure you a bit on that. Is the United States in a position to undertake any policies that would help guarantee their safe return?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, I think we have good relations with the provisional government and so certainly we will encourage them to undertake this investigation. But as in all of these cases involving refugees, it’s up to the refugees themselves to determine when it is safe enough to go back. And again, I reassured them that we are committed to helping to provide for their welfare while they remain in those camps.
SIMON: And do you come bearing promises of aid from the United States?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Yes indeed. We’ve already committed $5 million to help both the governments of Uzbekistan and the government of Kyrgyzstan with this refugee situation. And if there are continued needs, I'm sure that we'll look very carefully at how we can help.
SIMON: I want to press you a bit, just a little bit more, because we have wire service reports that quote you as telling people in the refugee camp, quote: “We are working with the government of Kyrgyzstan to provide security so you can return home safely."
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, that's not exactly what I said. (Laughter). What I said was that we would encourage the Kyrgyz Provisional Government to push the ball, establish control over security in the south so that the existing violence can stop, but then also so that they undertake this investigation that I talked about earlier to help establish the conditions for the eventual return of these refugees.
SIMON: Okay. So a phrase like work with the government of Kyrgyzstan to provide security, you didn’t utter that in any case.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: No. If you mean are we going to be sending in any of our own troops or anything like that, we're not.
SIMON: Robert Blake is the assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs. He joined us from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
Thanks so much.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thanks a lot, Scott. Pleasure to be with you.