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Protests Topple Kyrgyzstan's Government

Revolt Is Third in Former Soviet Republics in 16 Months

By Karl Vick and Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 25, 2005; Page A01

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan, March 25 -- Opposition demonstrators pushed past riot police and seized the presidential headquarters Thursday in this Central Asian country, toppling the government in the third successful popular revolt in a former Soviet republic in 16 months. President Askar Akayev dropped from sight, and Russian news agencies reported that he had flown to neighboring Kazakhstan.

In the capital, Bishkek, the supreme court quickly nullified the results of disputed elections that had sparked the uprising. Members of parliament appointed their speaker, Ishenbai Kadyrbekov, as acting president, news services reported.

Protesters pursue riot police as they storm government headquarters in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Several people were injured in the demonstrations. (Gleb Shchelkunov -- AP)

_____Kyrgyzstan Protests_____
Video: Protesters stormed the presidential compound in Kyrgyzstan on Thursday, seizing control of the seat of state power after clashing with riot police.
A Look at Kyrgyzstan

Jubilant protesters took turns sitting at Akayev's vacant desk in the palace and freed opposition prisoners from jails, capping an operation that met little resistance from government security forces. Others turned to looting and vandalism. Thieves stole cars and pillaged a department store and jewelry shops in the capital Thursday night despite calls from opposition leaders for calm, according to the Reuters news agency.

By Friday morning the city was subdued but not tense. Pedestrians were somewhat fewer than usual because many shops were closed, residents said. Municipal crews cleaned the streets as parliament met. There appeared to be no police presence.

"It's good Akayev has left," said Mirwan Mahmutov, a taxi driver. "The people are the leader right now."

The speed with which the government crumbled seemed to leave many of its opponents dizzy. The opposition seized major cities in the south early in the week; their first demonstration in the capital, on Wednesday, was small and easily dispersed by riot police. But Thursday, they massed in larger numbers, marched on the presidential compound and burst inside after scuffling with Akayev supporters.

"This morning when we organized the protests, I could not even imagine where it would all lead," said Kurmanbek Bakiyev, an opposition leader, standing on an armored vehicle in front of the government building.

Fourteen years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, democratic institutions continue to struggle to take root in its former territory. Kyrgyzstan, a poor, mostly Muslim country of 5 million people north of Afghanistan, has known only one president, Akayev, a physicist and former Soviet legislator, since independence. Once viewed as the most tolerant leader in Soviet Central Asia, he had grown more authoritarian in recent years, with family members holding political office and amassing fortunes in business.

Kyrgyzstan's revolt followed street uprisings in two other former republics -- the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the Rose Revolution in Georgia, which brought Western-oriented leaders to office. The Bush administration has welcomed the changes; Russia, which views countries on its border as a natural sphere of influence, has watched warily but allowed the new governments to assume power.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, Kyrgyzstan became an important staging area for U.S. forces supporting operations in Afghanistan. About 1,000 U.S. military personnel are stationed at an air base outside the capital; the country received $50.8 million in U.S. aid last year.

U.S. Ambassador Stephen M. Young is trying to bring together the different opposition groups and urging their supporters to avoid violence and stress dialogue, a senior State Department official said Thursday. "Given the unruliness of what has proceeded it, you've got to be concerned," the official said. ". . . This is terra incognita for everybody."

"We've been in contact with Russians and central Asians," the official said, "all to help reassure the Kyrgyz that there is an international mechanism to work their way through this and you don't have to resort to extreme measures.

"Now that Akayev is gone, the message is to deal with the situation through existing institutions and in a way that is transparent and inclusive -- bring all the factions together and come up with a way forward that everyone can agree on, instead of backroom deals that exclude people and impose a dictate."

In Washington on Thursday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice noted that events were moving very fast and said that if "responsible parties can encourage the various parties in Kyrgyzstan to move into a process that will then lead to the election of a government and move this process of democracy forward, it will have been a very good thing."

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