U.S. voices concern as protests plunge Kyrgyzstan into chaos

Mourners gather as the interim government works to restore public order after two nights of looting and gunfire. More than 75 people were killed in violent protests this week.
By Peter Finn
Thursday, April 8, 2010

Opposition demonstrators appeared Wednesday to have seized power in Kyrgyzstan, which is host to an important U.S. military base, after a day of bloody clashes that left dozens dead and forced the Central Asian country's president to flee the capital.

Leaders of the opposition said they had taken over key installations in Bishkek and were forming a new government. President Kurmanbek Bakiyev flew to Osh, a regional city where he enjoys support, according to news reports. His plans were uncertain, as was his ability to command the country's security forces and reassert his authority.

The death toll of about 40 was likely to rise, health officials in Bishkek said, noting that hundreds of protesters were injured in the violence.

For the United States, the upheaval is of particular concern because its Manas air base, near Bishkek, is a key transit point for supplying troops in Afghanistan. The Obama administration negotiated new lease terms for the facility last year after Bakiyev threatened to evict U.S. forces from the country.

Some in the Kyrgyz opposition accused the United States of ignoring allegations of rigged elections, suppression of independent media and physical intimidation of government critics, attributing its silence to a desire to maintain its military presence in Kyrgyzstan.

A new Kyrgyz government could sow fresh uncertainty over the base to express displeasure with Washington or to extract concessions. Some opposition members earlier called for closing the facility.

Kyrgyzstan is the only country to host both U.S. and Russian military bases. Bakiyev's move to close Manas was reportedly made under pressure from Russia, which extended Kyrgyzstan a $2 billion loan, but the president reversed course after the United States agreed to pay a higher rent and call the installation a "transit center" rather than a base.

The installation provides a partial alternative to road shipments of supplies across Pakistan and into Afghanistan; there are frequent U.S. flights between Manas and Bagram air base, the major American military facility in Afghanistan.

The U.S. military was forced to suspend flights at Manas International Airport late Wednesday after the Kyrgyz government closed the facility, according to a U.S. defense official. The American military shares the airstrip at Manas with civilian airlines.

The protests Wednesday were triggered by recent substantial increases in energy bills, but discontent with Bakiyev and his failure to improve the lot of ordinary people in the poor, majority-Muslim country had been growing. The opposition, including some who had helped bring Bakiyev to power after street protests in 2005, had accused the president of leading an increasingly repressive and corrupt government.

As night fell in the capital Wednesday, groups of young men roamed the streets and looters struck stores.

"We are still hearing gunshots," Dalton Bennett, an American journalist and teacher in Bishkek, said in a phone interview. "The only semblance of order is that local communities are putting together militias."

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