KAN, Kyrgyzstan (Reuters) - A powerful earthquake killed at least 14 people in Central Asia’s densely populated Ferghana valley on Wednesday, destroying homes in remote mountain towns and sending people onto the streets in panic.
Lying in the heart of Central Asia near Afghanistan, the valley is a complex ethnic patchwork of Soviet-era borders and ethnicities. It is prone to periodic bouts of violence, and regional powers believe it is a hotbed of Islamist radicalism.
People on either side of the border between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan reported prolonged, violent shaking in the early hours of the morning that cracked the walls of their homes.
“It’s no longer possible to live in my house,” said 54-year-old Mamir Yetmishbayev, a resident of the Kyrgyz town of Kan.
He said he fled outside with his four children after being woken by what he thought was a loud explosion.
Uzbekistan’s Emergencies Ministry, citing preliminary data, said 13 people died when the earthquake destroyed ageing houses in several towns and villages in Ferghana region. One man in Tajikistan died after jumping from his window, officials said.
The U.S. Geological Survey measured the quake at magnitude 6.1.
The valley straddles Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajiksitan and is the most densely populated part of Central Asia, a strategic and earthquake-prone region between Russia, China, and Afghanistan.
Widespread poverty has contributed to a growing trend of radical Islam in the mainly Sunni Muslim region, which was ruled out of Moscow for almost a century before Central Asia’s five countries gained independence in 1991.
In June 2010, more than 400 people were killed during several days of clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in and around Osh, the largest city in southern Kyrgyzstan. At the height of the violence, about 400,000 people fled their homes.
“God is punishing us for what we are doing,” said Ismat, a resident of the Kyrgyz city of Batken, close to the Uzbek border. He declined to give his second name.
“People were on the streets all night. There was a lot of panic.”
The U.S. Geological Survey placed the epicentre 18 km underground, about 42 km southwest of Ferghana, a city in eastern Uzbekistan near the Kyrgyz border.
In a rare public admission of bad news, Uzbekistan’s Emergencies Ministry said 86 people were treated for injuries and 35 taken to hospital. It said an emergency response team was already working in the worst affected areas.
“Everybody was afraid. Everything was shaking,” Dilaffrus Muminova, a Ferghana resident, told Reuters by telephone. “It lasted two or three minutes, if not more.”
Tajikistan’s Health Ministry said a resident of the northern city of Khujand, Abdullo Ashparov, died after leaping from a window in his second-storey apartment during the quake. No other casualties or destruction were reported in Tajikistan.
The Ferghana valley is a major centre of cotton and silk production, and the hills above are covered by walnut forests.
Kyrgyzstan’s Emergencies Ministry had dispatched a team to the region to investigate damage, said Sultanbek Mamatov, a spokesman for the ministry. Damage to an electricity sub-station had cut off power to several small towns and villages, he said.
In one such village, Kozhokorun, a Reuters reporter saw every single-storey clay house destroyed. But there was not a single casualty among the 55 families who live in the village.
In Kan, a town of 1,500 people close to the epicentre on the Kyrgyz side of the border, seven homes were destroyed and cracks were reported on about 400 of the town’s 470 houses. The population is evenly split between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks.
“Everybody who has suffered here will be provided with accommodation. For now, they will live with their neighbours but we will also provide tents,” said Arzybek Burkanov, governor of Batken province, who was inspecting the damage in his region.
In nearby Kadamjay, a town best known for its antimony smelter, local resident Seitmurad Kozhoyev said windows had been shattered and at least one multi-storey apartment block damaged.
The risk of further casualties seemed higher on the Uzbek side of the border. Independent news agency www.uznews.net quoted an unnamed resident of the town of Khamza as saying the local hospital could not accommodate all of the wounded.
Another native of Ferghana, who lives in Kazakhstan, said friends had reported the destruction of low-rise housing in the nearby silk-producing town of Margilan, although there were no reports of casualties.
“It’s an old town and some of the old houses have been destroyed,” she said, requesting anonymity.
In 2008, a powerful earthquake killed more than 70 people in Kyrgyzstan. In 1966, the Uzbek capital Tashkent was flattened by a 7.5 earthquake that left hundreds of thousands homeless.
Wednesday’s quake was also felt in Tashkent, about 235 km from the epicentre, but there were no reports of serious damage. “Everyone got a bit of a scare,” said an expatriate resident of the Uzbek capital.
Additional reporting by Robin Paxton in Almaty and Roman Kozhevnikov in Dushanbe; Writing by Robin Paxton; Editing by Maria Golovnina