Protesters oust Kyrgyz government

Posted in Other | 24-Mar-05 | Author: Steve Gutterman| Source: The Independent

Protesters look at a burning car at the government headquarters in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Thursday, March 24, 2005.

Prime Minister Nikolai Tanayev has resigned and President Askar Akayev has left Kyrgyzstan, a top opposition leader said today, hours after protesters seized control of the presidential and government headquarters.

"Akayev is no longer on the territory of Kyrgyzstan," Kurmanbek Bakiyev said on opposition-controlled state television. He said Tanayev had tendered his resignation, but that the Security, Interior and Defence Ministries were working with the opposition. Akayev had also resigned, the ITAR-Tass news agency said.

The former Kyrgyz parliament that was in session before disputed elections was meeting tonight to discuss keeping order in the nation and plan for a new presidential vote within months.

Topchubek Turgunaliyev, an activist of the opposition People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan, said new parliamentary elections would be held in autumn.

"We want to preserve the unity of the nation. We are holding talks with law enforcement officials so there is coordination," said Turgunaliyev, whose party is headed by Kurmanbek Bakiyev, one of two major opposition leaders.

Akayev's reported resignation and flight from the country came hours after hundreds of opposition supporters, protesting alleged fraud in parliamentary elections earlier this month, stormed government headquarters in Bishkek.

State television appeared to be in opposition hands - underscoring the impression that the hitherto fragmented opposition was consolidating control. "State television is working for the people," an announcer said.

Thick plumes of black smoke rose from two burning cars, apparently belonging to government officials, near the government headquarters several hours after the takeover. It was unclear how the cars were set ablaze.

The tumultuous scene was the culmination of the first major rally in the Kyrgyz capital since opposition supporters seized control of key cities and towns in the south this week to press demands that the long-serving Akayev step down amid widespread allegations of fraud in this year's parliamentary vote.

About 1,000 protesters managed to clear riot police from their positions outside the fence protecting the building, and about half entered through the front. Others smashed windows with stones, while hundreds of police watched from outside the fence, where thousands more protesters remained.

"It's not the opposition that has seized power, it's the people who have taken power. The people. They have been fighting for so long against corruption, against that (Akayev) family," said Ulan Shambetov, an opposition activist, as he sat in Akayev's office chair surrounded by supporters.

Kulov, a key opposition figure, was freed from jail. A former Kyrgyz vice president and interior minister, Kulov leads an opposition party.

"It is a revolution made by the people," he said on state television, adding, "Tomorrow will come, and we must decide how to live tomorrow."

Earlier, protesters had led Defence Minister Esen Topoyev out of the building, holding him by the elbows and trying to protect him, but others threw stones at the military chief and one protester kicked him. Interior Ministry troops led other officials out, and three injured people, bandages covering their wounds, left accompanied by a doctor.

"I am very happy because for 15 years we've been seeing the same ugly face that has been shamelessly smiling at us," said 35-year-old Abdikasim Kamalov, standing outside the building and holding a red Kyrgyz flag. "We could no longer tolerate this. We want changes."

Kyrgyzstan lacks the rich energy resources or pipeline routes that have made of some of its Central Asian neighbors the focus of struggles by Russia, the United States and China for regional influence. But the former Soviet republic's role as a conduit for drugs and a potential hotbed of Islamic extremism, particularly in the impoverished south, makes it volatile.

Both the United States and Russia - which is part of a six-nation military pact with Kyrgyzstan - maintain military bases near Bishkek, and Moscow said today it had increased security at its facility.

In Bishkek, the clash broke out when men in civilian clothes and blue armbands began throwing stones and brandishing truncheons to threaten demonstrators. Protesters retaliated with stones and sticks.

An unknown number of protesters were injured. One had a serious skull injury and a broken leg and another broken ribs, said Iskander Shamshiyev, leader of the opposition Youth Movement of Kyrgyzstan.

The police appeared disorganized and unwilling to take harsh action. Dozens of mostly young opposition supporters rampaged inside the building, some smashing furniture and looting supplies, ignoring protest organizers urging them to stop.

Many of the demonstrators wore pink or yellow headbands signifying their loyalty to the opposition - reminiscent of the orange worn by protesters who helped bring in a new, pro-Western president in Ukraine last year.

Unlike the successful anti-government protests in Ukraine and in Georgia in 2003, the Kyrgyz uprising is not led by a central figure, raising the likelihood of a jockeying for power.

"I am concerned that for the next two months, or maybe even for a year, there will be chaos," Shamshiyev said.

The protests began even before the first round of parliamentary elections on Feb. 27 and swelled after March 13 run-offs that the opposition and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said were seriously flawed.

In power since 1991, the 60-year-old Akayev is prohibited from seeking another term, but the opposition has accused him of manipulating the parliamentary vote to gain a compliant legislature that would amend the constitution to allow him to stay in office beyond a presidential election set for October. Akayev has denied that.

He has presented himself as a cautious democrat, saying he supports democratic values but that they must be introduced gradually because Kyrgyzstan has not had a long experience with democracy. His opponents claim that is a cover for an intention to establish authoritarian rule.