Mourners gather in Bishkek; future of U.S. air base unclear

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 Philip P. Pan and Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 9, 2010; 11:46 AM

BISHKEK, KYRGYZSTAN -- Thousands of angry residents gathered in the central plaza of this tense capital city Friday to mourn more than 75 people killed in violent protests and demand that the interim government prosecute the nation's missing president for ordering security forces to fire on demonstrators.

The peaceful crowd laid flowers outside the charred and ransacked seat of government known as the White House and on sprawling Ala-Too Square, where much of Wednesday's bloodshed occurred. Nearby, firefighters battled a blaze at the headquarters of the chief prosecutor.

President Kurmanbek Bakiyev fled the capital Wednesday night after protesters angered by the shootings overwhelmed police and took control of key government buildings. But he has refused to resign and remains in hiding in the nation's south, where his opponents say he may be trying to organize an armed resistance.

"He should suffer as he made his people suffer," said Talaibek Abdurakhmanov, 58, a retired engineer, who traveled to the capital to help friends retrieve the bodies of three college students killed in the clashes. "He should be put on trial and sentenced to life in prison."

Temir Sariyev, one of the opposition figures in the new government, said a criminal case had been opened against Bakiyev and several family members and that police were making plans to arrest him. "We have interrogated suspects, and they are providing evidence against the president, and against his brothers and children," he said. "Our law enforcement agencies are involved in special operations to detain him."

Opposition leaders said they had no immediate plans to close the U.S. air base at Manas International Airport, a major transit hub for personnel and equipment en route to Afghanistan. But they indicated that, at a minimum, Washington would be forced to negotiate fresh terms to maintain the military installation, less than a year after the Bakiyev government tripled the rent and extracted $150 million in other concessions.

The instability in Kyrgyzstan could complicate President Obama's plan to send 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan as part of an even larger NATO buildup there. In March, 50,000 U.S. and allied forces heading to and from Afghanistan transited through the Manas air base, more than three times the monthly average last year.

U.S. officials said they were forced to curtail flights at Manas on Thursday and confine all troops to the base.

In the capital, the mourners gathered as the interim government appeared to make progress in restoring public order in the capital with the help of civilian militias after two nights of looting and gunfire.

Dawn arrived to reveal streets littered with garbage and lined with looted stores. Charred remains of a few police and military vehicles sat outside the seat of government, which had been ransacked and burned, along with the chief prosecutor's building. Across the boulevard was an abandoned armored personnel carrier, its tires slashed and an empty beer bottle sitting on the hood.

Roza Otunbayeva, a former foreign minister and ambassador to the United States, has been named the leader of the interim government. She suggested that the new government would honor the U.S. lease for the base at Manas, which expires in July. But she made no promises beyond that, saying at a news conference, "We still have some questions on it."

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