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

By Peter Finn
Thursday, April 8, 2010; A01

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."

According to the Russian news agency RIA Novosti, Kyrgyz Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov resigned Thursday and a steering committee of opposition figures appointed Roza Otunbayeva temporary head of a new government. The opposition also said it had appointed a new interior minister and a new security chief; the incumbent interior minister was reportedly beaten by a mob and seriously injured.

"The security service and the Interior Ministry . . . all of them are already under the management of new people," Otunbayeva, a former foreign minister, told a Russian TV channel.

The chaotic scenes Wednesday and Thursday were almost a rerun of the 2005 demonstrations, which became known as the Tulip Revolution. Five years ago last month, at the end of a day of protests, Bakiyev stood on an armored vehicle outside the main government building, personifying a rush of hope as then-President Askar Akayev fled, first to Kazakhstan and later to Russia.

But Bakiyev was widely viewed as having failed to deliver expected prosperity to the mountainous country of 5 million; many people remained dependent on remittances from 800,000 Kyrgyz migrant workers in Russia, and when the Russian economy tanked in the global downturn, the effects in Kyrgyzstan were profound.

The government "promised a more open society and economic well-being," Chris Weafer, a financial analyst at UralSib Financial Corp. in Moscow, wrote in a note to investors Wednesday. "The problem is that the President and his team spent most of their time restructuring ministries and playing off the major countries (Russia, US, China) against each other. Very little was done to change the economy."

U.S. officials called for calm.

"We urge all parties to show respect for the rule of law and resolve differences in a peaceful, orderly and legal manner," said P.J. Crowley, a spokesman for the State Department.

Russian officials also called for the restoration of order, and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Moscow had no role in the protests.

"Neither Russia, nor your humble servant, nor Russian officials have any links whatsoever to these events," Putin said, according to RIA Novosti.

The unrest first surfaced Tuesday in western Kyrgyzstan, where demonstrators took a governor hostage, prompting the central government to warn of severe consequences. The previously divided opposition seized on the incident to call people onto the streets in the capital.

Groups of mostly young protesters clashed with police officers, who fired rubber bullets and used tear gas to disperse the stone-throwing crowds. Some demonstrators also carried automatic weapons. Police opened fire on protesters near government headquarters, enraging the crowds, who attacked key government and security buildings.

Health officials in Bishkek said 41 people were killed in the violence and more than 400 injured. Some opposition figures said more than 100 people were fatally shot by police; many died when protesters stormed a building that housed the domestic security agency, witnesses said.

"There are dozens of dead bodies, all with gunshot wounds," Akylbek Yeukebayev, a doctor at a Bishkek hospital, told the Reuters news service.

Staff writer Craig Whitlock contributed to this report.

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