BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan, March 23 -- Kyrgyz police violently broke up an anti-government protest in the capital on Wednesday, and the newly appointed security chief told opponents of President Askar Akayev that he was ready to use armed force to crush unrest.
Akayev named a top policeman, Keneshbek Dushebayev, to be interior minister to deal with street protests against his rule. Opposition supporters have taken control of two major cities in the south; some people here fear civil war in the Central Asian country.
Kyrgyz policemen detain a protester in Bishkek, the capital, a day after President Askar Akayev vowed not to use force to put down the protests.
(Misha Japaridze -- AP)
In his first public comments after becoming minister, Dushebayev said at a news conference that "the law gives us all rights needed to restore the constitutional order. We can use force . . . and weapons." But he said that "we are not going to shoot at law-abiding citizens, women, old people and children." In a speech to parliament Tuesday, the president repeated declarations that he would not use violence to put down the protests.
Shortly before he spoke, riot police broke up an anti-Akayev demonstration of about 200 people. In a brief but violent confrontation, police beat demonstrators and took several of them away in buses.
"Akayev is strengthening his grip on power by putting hard-liners" in security posts, said Edil Baisalov, who heads the opposition Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society.
The opposition criticized the president's latest cabinet appointments. "These personnel changes do not placate us, because the most important thing for us is the rapid departure of Akayev. We will not stop until he leaves," said Topchubek Turgunaliyev, leader of the radical opposition Erkindik Party.
Analysts warned that violence could escalate in Kyrgyzstan, which borders China and lies in an oil- and gas-rich region where the United States and Russia vie for influence. Both nations have military bases outside Bishkek, the capital; the U.S. facility provides support for the peacekeeping force in nearby Afghanistan.
A government spokesman said Prime Minister Nikolai Tanayev might travel south to Kyrgyzstan's second city, Osh, on Thursday to meet opposition protesters.
In an apparent bid to improve his image in the predominantly agricultural south, Akayev met a group of peasants Wednesday and promised that the newly elected parliament would address their problems. "I will offer to the new parliament a package of bills aimed at developing the agricultural sector," he told a group of farmers invited to government headquarters in Bishkek.
About 1,000 protesters, including women in colorful head scarves and men in conical hats, gathered outside the administrative building in the southern city of Jalal-Abad, which the opposition seized over the weekend. "Everyone you see here is unemployed. Try to find anyone who has enough flour or bread. Since 1991 we have become slaves for Akayev," said Anvar Razulov, 54, an unemployed ethnic Uzbek.
Akayev, in power since 1991, has rejected opposition demands to step down and annul parliamentary elections held in February and March. The opposition said the vote, in which it was badly defeated, was rigged. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe agreed that the voting was flawed.
Marcus Muller, an OSCE representative in Bishkek, said the group would send a mediator to Kyrgyzstan and that diplomats pressed the two sides to hold talks. Akayev has said he is ready for dialogue.
Popular uprisings in Georgia and Ukraine in the past two years that brought pro-Western figures to power have unnerved the autocratic governments of the five former Soviet republics in Central Asia. Akayev on Tuesday charged that the "opposition is directed and funded from the outside."