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Voters in Kyrgyzstan approved a new constitution Sunday that will allow the Central Asian nation to form a legitimate government after months of turmoil, the country's interim leader said.
President Roza Otunbayeva called the referendum a success, saying it took place without incident and paved the way for holding parliamentary elections in October. The vote came just weeks after rampages against minority Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan killed as many as 2,000 people and forced 400,000 ethnic Uzbeks to temporarily flee.
With just over 14 percent of all precincts counted, the Central Election Commission said over 62 percent voted for the new constitution to only 7 percent against it. Some 2.7 million people were eligible to vote, and turnout was 65 percent, it said.
"We have passed the new constitution for our republic," Otunbayeva said at a news conference. "It will not be an interim but a legal and legitimate government ... we are leaving the word interim behind."
Sunday's vote — supported by the U.N., the U.S. and Russia — was seen as an important step on the road to democracy for the interim government, which came to power after former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted in April following deadly street protests. It needed the vote to legitimize its power after the uprising against Bakiyev.
"Soon we will announce new parliamentary elections and by the fall all the legitimate branches of power will be formed," Otunbayeva said.
The interim government had accused Bakiyev's followers of instigating the recent attacks to try to stop the referendum, a charge that Bakiyev, now living in Belarus, denied. Uzbeks have mostly supported the interim government, while Kyrgyz in the south backed Bakiyev, whose regime was seen as corrupt.
There had been fears that displaced Uzbeks whose documents were lost in burned-out homes would not be able to participate in the vote, and some did complain of problems.
Yet Khulkarpasha Sabirova, deputy head of the Uzbek community in Kyrgyzstan, said an estimated 65 percent of all ethnic Uzbeks in the south who were eligible to vote cast their ballots Sunday, and over 60 percent of them supported the new constitution.
The government changed voting rules on Friday so Uzbeks who had fled the violence could still vote without documents. Authorities also handed out temporary IDs, but many Uzbek families were too afraid go back to their neighborhoods to receive the new papers.
Despite these efforts, only about 100 of some 4,000 displaced Uzbeks in the border village of Suratash were able to vote.
Erkinai Umarova, who is living with dozens of friends and relatives in a cramped house in Suratash, said she lost all her documents when her home in the hard-hit southern city of Osh was destroyed by arson.
"Nobody has come to this place to promote the referendum, they didn't invite us," said Umarova, a 39-year-old Uzbek teacher. "It is as though we are not even citizens of Kyrgyzstan."
Central Election Commission chief Akylbek Sariev insisted the vote was essential for stability, rejecting critics who said it was too early to hold the vote.
"We couldn't delay that because the power of the state had to be established," Sariev told The Associated Press. "The state of the nation was at stake."
Dinara Oshurakhunova, head of a local democracy rights group, said despite the tensions in Osh, different ethnic groups had voted peacefully in mixed neighborhoods.
"Most people here don't even understand what they are voting for," Oshurakhunova said. "For them, taking part is simply an opportunity to stabilize the situation."
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe had 25 observers monitoring the vote.
"The turnout has been encouraging, and it shows that people apparently want to use their right to vote," said Janez Lenarcic of the OSCE.
Both the United States and Russia have military bases in Kyrgyzstan. The U.S. Manas air base is a key transit center for U.S. and NATO troops and supplies flying in and out of Afghanistan.
This program aired on June 27, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.
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