MOSCOW (MCT) — Kyrgyzstan's government appealed to Russia on Saturday to send troops to the former Soviet republic in a desperate attempt to stop the ethnic riots that have rocked a southern city and left 77 people dead.

Interim President Roza Otunbayeva said she had sent an official letter to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and discussed with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin the deteriorating situation in Osh, where residents described a city out of control.

"We are waiting for news from the Russian Federation now," Otunbayeva said in televised remarks after the phone conversation with Putin. "We think that the required measures will certainly be taken."

But Russia quickly said it had no plans to send troops to Kyrgyzstan.

"It is an internal conflict, and so far Russia doesn't see conditions for participating in its resolution," Russian presidential press secretary Natalia Timakova said Saturday.

The violence began Thursday evening as several hundred Kyrgyz and Uzbek youths clashed in Osh, the country's second-largest city. At first they battled with fists, sticks and metal rods, but soon the numbers grew to several thousand, and they were fighting across the city center using automatic rifles, shotguns and other weapons, a witness said.

On Friday, the interim government declared a state of emergency in the south. The number of wounded has risen to 1,000, Echo of Moscow radio station reported Saturday.

The violence has spread to another large city, Jalal-Abad, where residents report that rioters burned down a university and captured a military unit and seized its weapons, the radio station reported.

The rioting comes as the interim government is struggling to consolidate control. There have been occasional outbreaks of violence since a coup in April drove President Kurmanbek Bakiyev from power and into exile.

The ethnic riots appeared to be the worst in Kyrgyzstan since 1990, when several hundred people died in clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. The Uzbek minority, at 14 percent of the population, is the second-largest ethnic group in the country after the Kyrgyz, at 70 percent. But the population in Osh is evenly divided between the two groups.

In Osh, residents spoke of a city on fire.

"I don't know what the army is doing, but they seem to be only making the situation worse," said Kokhramon Madaminov, 26, an ethnic Uzbek who had gone with his wife to visit his parents in Osh a week ago and was stranded. "The troops are driving in tanks and armored vehicles along the city street and shoot from cannons and large-caliber machine guns at every opportunity, and naturally they hit residential houses and destroy them."

Madaminov, whose family lives in a southern suburb of Osh, said he could see thick smoke rising throughout the city.

"It looks as if the whole city is ablaze," he said.

He said the people in Osh were running out of food and supplies. Shops were either closed, their wares sold or looted, or had been burned. He said thousands of people had left town by car, truck, donkey and on foot, heading for the Uzbekistan border.

"If, before the conflict, there were at least as many Uzbeks in town as Kyrgyz, now most of them have already fled," Madaminov said. "We don't have guns, and we are shot at by Kyrgyz hoodlums who roam the city in groups of 20 to 30 men wearing masks and armed with Kalashnikovs.

"Even troops will randomly shoot at you if they see you crossing the street," Madaminov said. "It is complete havoc."

In Moscow, before the Kremlin response to Otunbayeva's appeal, some officials had expressed skepticism about the prospect of Russia dispatching troops.

Lawmaker Konstantin Zatulin said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that sending troops to Kyrgyzstan would be an extremely risky enterprise.

"The Soviet Union once deployed its troops in Afghanistan at the invitation of that country, and that resulted in a long and most damaging war," Zatulin said.

"We closely watch the events in Iraq and Afghanistan now, and we don't want to make mistakes."

(c) 2010, Los Angeles Times. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.