April 8, 2010 in City

Opposition controls Kyrgyz capital

Flights halted at U.S. air base where Fairchild crews rotate through
Peter Leonard Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Kyrgyz police huddle together for protection, as they come under attack from protestors near the main government buildings in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on Wednesday. Police in Kyrgyzstan opened fire on thousands of angry protesters.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

At a glance

Kyrgyzstan

Geography: A largely mountainous country in the middle of Asia, a bit smaller than New Zealand or Nebraska, Kyrgyzstan borders China and three other former Soviet republics: Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan.

Population: About 5 million people; around 65 percent are ethnic Kyrgyz, 14 percent Uzbek, 13 percent Russian.

Economy: It is mostly agricultural, and about half the population lives below the poverty line. Remittances sent home from Kyrgyz workers abroad are significant and plunged during the global recession.

Strategic importance: It is a key supply center for the war efforts against the Taliban in nearby Afghanistan. The U.S. opened an air base in Kyrgyzstan in 2001 and Russia opened an air base in 2003. Kyrgyzstan is also seen as a relatively stable corner in a volatile region.

Reasons for violence: President Kurmanbek Bakiyev came to power in street protests of 2005, dubbed the Tulip Revolution, that forced his predecessor, Askar Akayev, to flee. But Bakiyev, like Akayev, has grown increasingly authoritarian and critics say he has sacrificed democratic standards to maintain peace. Anger at huge hikes in utility prices has galvanized opposition this year and fed public dissent.

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan – The opposition seized Kyrgyzstan’s government headquarters today following clashes between protesters and security forces that have left 68 people dead nationwide, and appeared to control this Central Asian country that houses a key U.S. air base.

An opposition coalition said it has formed an interim government that will rule the turbulent nation for six months.

Opposition leader Roza Otunbayeva said today she will head the government that dissolved the parliament and will take up legislative duties.

She told a news conference that the new government will conduct negotiations with President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who left the capital and is presumably hiding in the central Jalal-Abad region.

No police guarded the government headquarters, and hundreds of jubilant but calm residents stood outside, including some who had climbed up on an armored personnel carrier. Others were walking freely through the building known as the White House.

Scars of Wednesday’s fighting, though, were everywhere in the capital, Bishkek, and the Health Ministry said the death toll rose overnight to 68, with 400 people still hospitalized. The numbers included those killed or wounded in clashes elsewhere in the country as protesters drove out local governments.

The opposition has called for the closure of the U.S. air base in Manas outside the capital, which is an essential transit point for supplies essential to the war in nearby Afghanistan.

U.S. military officials said Kyrgyzstan officials halted flights for 12 hours on Wednesday at the Manas air base, but the suspension was not expected to impact military operations because fewer flights were scheduled during overnight hours.

Some personnel from Fairchild Air Force Base were in Kyrgyzstan when the hostilities occurred, said Lt. Casey Osborne, the Fairchild deputy chief of public affairs.

“We can confirm that a number of them are at the transit center at Manas,” he said.

However, Osborne could offer no information about their situation.

Fairchild crews routinely rotate through Manas.

Some semblance of order returned to Bishkek, where until the early hours of the morning gunfire could be heard as marauding, looting mobs rampaged through the city.

Almost no government building was left untouched. Some were set on fire or had windows smashed. A three-story Chinese trading house was ablaze today. The state TV channel was overrun and looted.

On Wednesday, protesters who were called into the streets by opposition parties stormed government buildings in Bishkek and battled with police amid volleys of tear gas. Groups of elite officers then fired with live ammunition.

After nightfall, the opposition and its supporters appeared to gain the upper hand. An AP reporter saw opposition leader Keneshbek Duishebayev sitting in the office of the chief of the National Security Agency, Kyrgyzstan’s successor to the Soviet KGB. Duishebayev issued orders on the phone to people he said were security agents, and he also gave orders to a uniformed special forces commando.

Duishebayev, the former interior minister, told the AP that “we have created units to restore order” on the streets. Many of the opposition leaders were once allies of Bakiyev, in some cases former ministers or diplomats.

Since coming to power in 2005 amid street protests known as the Tulip Revolution, Bakiyev had ensured a measure of stability in the country of 5 million people, but the opposition says he has done so at the expense of democratic standards while enriching himself and his family. He gave his relatives, including his son, top government and economic posts and faced the same accusations of corruption and cronyism that led to the ouster of his predecessor, Askar Akayev.

In the past two years, authorities have clamped down on the media, and opposition activists say they have routinely been subjected to physical intimidation and targeted by politically motivated criminal investigations.

Like its neighbors Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan has remained impoverished since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and has a history of stifling democratic institutions and human rights.

Kyrgyzstan is a predominantly Muslim country, but just as in Soviet times, it has remained secular. There has been little fear of the spread of Islamic fundamentalism as in other mostly Muslim regions of the former Soviet Union.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin denied any involvement in the uprising.

“Russian officials have absolutely nothing to do with this,” he said in Smolensk in response to a journalist’s question. “Personally, these events caught me completely by surprise.”

He also criticized Bakiyev’s government for repeating Akayev’s mistakes.

“When President Bakiyev came to power, he was very harshly critical of the fact that the relatives of the deposed President Akayev had taken positions throughout Kyrgyzstan’s economy. I have the impression that Mr. Bakiyev is stepping on these same rakes.”

A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the uncertainty and delicacy of the situation, said the U.S. was in touch with government officials and the opposition.

“We want to see the situation resolved peacefully, consistent with the rule of law,” the official said. “Our conversation with the opposition at this stage is about finding out what is happening and encouraging a peaceful resolution.”

The anti-government forces were in disarray until recent widespread anger over the 200 percent increase in electric and heating bills unified them and galvanized support. Many of Wednesday’s protesters were men from poor villages, including some who had come to the capital to live and work on construction sites.

Already struggling, they were outraged by the high cost of energy and were easily stirred up by opposition claims of official corruption.

In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the U.S. deplored the violence and urged all to respect the rule of law.

“We identify with the concerns that the people of Kyrgyzstan have about their future,” but those concerns should be dealt with peacefully, Crowley said, adding that the Manas base was operating normally.

Opposition leaders have said they want the base closed because it could put their country at risk if the United States becomes involved in a military conflict with Iran. Closing it would also please Russia, which has opposed the basing of U.S. troops on former Soviet turf.

The United States began using Manas in 2001, two months after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, and the base has become essential for transportation, refueling and supply for U.S.-led military operations in Afghanistan.

In 2009, Kyrgyzstan said U.S. forces would have to leave Manas, citing improving security conditions in Afghanistan and dissatisfaction over commercial terms for the base. That eviction announcement came shortly after Russia agreed to grant Kyrgyzstan more than $2 billion in aid and loans, and U.S. officials suggested the eviction decision hinged on Moscow’s aid.

The government later reversed its stance and agreed to a revised one-year deal giving U.S. troops rights to use the facility.

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