BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan – Consolidating their victory after a bloody uprising, opposition leaders declared Thursday they would hold power in Kyrgyzstan for six months and assured the U.S. it can keep a strategic air base here – at least for now.
There were signs of instability, though, as deposed President Kurmanbek Bakiyev refused to relinquish power after the revolt, which left at least 75 people dead and hundreds wounded. As he spoke, gunfire broke out after nightfall in the capital, Bishkek.
With darkness descending, roving bands of armed marauders trawled the streets of the capital, despite warnings from the opposition leadership that looters would be shot.
Crowds gathering at the ransacked government headquarters earlier in the day angrily shouted anti-Bakiyev slogans. Still, the mood was subdued as residents came to terms with the scale of the violence unleashed against the mostly unarmed protesters by government troops a day earlier.
The former Soviet nation is home to a key U.S. military base supporting the fighting in Afghanistan that opposition figures have in the past said they wanted to see shut down. Kyrgyzstan also hosts a Russian military base – the only nation where both Cold War foes have bases.
Roza Otunbayeva, a former foreign minister now heading the interim government, said there were no plans yet to review the lease agreement for the Manas air base, which runs out in July. She said her government would meet U.S. diplomats for talks in Bishkek.
“Give us time, it will take time for us to understand and fix the situation,” Otunbayeva said.
U.S. military officials said Kyrgyzstan halted flights for 12 hours Wednesday, confining troops to the air base; they did not say if flights had resumed. Some 1,100 troops are stationed there, including contingents from Spain and France, in support of NATO operations in Afghanistan.
President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev discussed Kyrgyzstan before signing an arms treaty in Prague on Thursday.
Michael McFaul, Obama’s senior director for Russian affairs, emphasized that the U.S. did not view the conflict as any kind of proxy struggle between the U.S. and Russia.
“The people that are allegedly running Kyrgyzstan … these are all people we’ve had contact with for many years,” he said. “This is not some anti-American coup, that we know for sure. And this is not some sponsored-by-the-Russians coup – there’s just no evidence of that.”
Kyrgyzstan shares a 533-mile border with China and is a gateway to energy-rich Central Asian countries where the U.S., China and Russia are competing for dominance. China said it was “deeply concerned” about the violent uprising in its small western neighbor, echoing comments by the United States and Russia.
Otunbayeva said parliament had been dissolved and that she would head an interim government for six months before elections are called. She said the new government controlled four of the country’s seven regions and called for Bakiyev to admit defeat.
“His business in Kyrgyzstan is finished,” she said.
In a sign that Russia may lend its support to the opposition, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called Otunbayeva on Thursday.
Bakiyev, who fled the northern capital for his stronghold in the south, told a Russian radio station that “I don’t admit defeat in any way.” But he also said he recognized that “even though I am president, I don’t have any real levers of power.”