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Kyrgyz Protesters Seize Sites in South

Growing Anti-Government Unrest Follows Charges of Recent Electoral Fraud

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 22, 2005; Page A12

MOSCOW, March 21 -- Thousands of anti-government protesters, some throwing Molotov cocktails, seized key buildings and installations in five cities and towns across southern Kyrgyzstan on Monday, according to reports from the region.

Unrest that had been simmering for weeks over the conduct and results of recent parliamentary elections turned into a broad challenge to the rule of President Askar Akayev as opposition supporters took effective control of the country's second-largest city, Osh. Local officials and security forces were ejected from government buildings, the local airport and a television station.

Pro- and anti-government factions fight on the steps of an administrative building in Osh, in southern Kyrgyzstan. Protesters took effective control of the city. (Ivan Sekretarev -- AP)

Official results from two rounds of voting that ended March 13 showed the opposition soundly defeated by candidates who back Akayev.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a 55-country body based in Vienna, said the vote was marred by "significant shortcomings."

For weeks, protesters have been blocking roads and holding rallies to challenge the removal of some candidates from the ballot by the courts and what they deemed vote-rigging by the government.

"We have one aim only: to oust this government," said Roza Otunbayeva, a former foreign minister and Kyrgyz ambassador to the United States, who was prevented from running in the recent election by a law requiring candidates to have lived in the country for the preceding five years. "There is no need for talks anymore."

On Monday, Otunbayeva told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty: "Many police officers and other law enforcement personnel have joined our side, so historic events are taking place here in the Osh region. . . . We have already taken over almost half of the republic, the south of the country, and we will continue to move forward."

There is a deep economic divide between the north, including the capital, Bishkek, and the impoverished south where the protests are taking place. That could constrain the ability of the opposition to force the government from power, officials said.

A spokesman for Akayev said Monday that the president was willing to hold talks once order had been restored, and that in the meantime the government planned to exercise restraint.

"Neither the authorities nor opposition leaders can control the crowd right now," said Abdil Seghizbayev, an aide to the president, according to the Associated Press. If an opposition leader emerges who can control the protesters, Seghizbayev said, "the government will be ready to talk to him."

In an apparent effort to placate the protesters, Akayev also asked the Central Elections Commission and the country's Supreme Court to review the results of the voting, telling them to "to pay particular attention to those districts where election results provoked extreme public reaction . . . and tell people openly who is right and who is wrong," according to a statement from Akayev's office.

The opposition charges that Akayev, 60, plans to use a compliant parliament to revise the constitution to extend his rule, a claim the president has denied.

"Power in Osh has been taken over by people," an opposition leader, Anvar Artykov, told protesters there. "I congratulate you on our victory and urge you to maintain order."

But another opposition leader, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, said in Bishkek that the situation was "spinning out of control." It "cannot be any more explosive than it is," he said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry condemned the protests and rebuked the OSCE, saying in a statement that the organization should "be more responsible in formulating its conclusions to prevent destructive elements from using these assessments to justify their lawless actions."

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