Washington starts outreach to new Kyrgyz leaders
BISHKEK, KYRGYZSTAN -- The Obama administration began a high-stakes effort Wednesday to smooth things over with new leaders in Kyrgyzstan, who seized power last week after complaining for years that Washington had tolerated human rights abuses against them by the deposed president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev.
Assistant Secretary of State Robert O. Blake arrived in Kyrgyzstan's capital, Bishkek, for two days of talks with the new government, but in a reminder that Blake was playing catch-up, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin approved a $50 million aid package for the Central Asian republic a few hours earlier.
Behind the flurry of interest in this impoverished nation of 5 million is the future of a U.S. air base here that supports NATO operations in Afghanistan. Kyrgyzstan's new leaders consider it a symbol of Washington's cozy relationship with the autocrat they ousted, and Russian officials view it as an intrusion on their sphere of influence.
Blake faced a skeptical public as he pledged U.S. help to restore democracy to Kyrgyzstan and laid flowers on the plaza where Bakiyev's security forces fired on protesters last week, killing more than 80 people. Complicating his mission is the fact Bakiyev remains in the country and is locked in a volatile standoff with the authorities, who won't let him go into exile unless he surrenders a brother suspected of ordering the shootings.