In Kyrgyzstan, arrest of opposition leaders added fuel to violent uprising

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
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 25, 2010

BISHKEK, KYRGYZSTAN -- When the shooting started and protesters began falling around him, when he spotted the police snipers on the roof of the government building, when a bullet clipped off part of his left ear and struck the man behind him in the head, Askar Sarbashev didn't run.

Instead, the 49-year-old lawyer climbed into an armored personnel carrier that he and other demonstrators in Kyrgyzstan had seized, and returned fire with the vehicle's machine gun until it jammed. "They had killed so many people," he recalled. "They thought that would frighten us. But it only made us angrier."

In interviews with more than two dozen witnesses, including police officials, a clearer picture has emerged of the April 7 uprising in Kyrgyzstan that has threatened the future of an important U.S. air base here. The new accounts highlight two factors in the revolt's success: a populace so angry it braved gunfire to oust President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and an understaffed police force unable to contain it.

That popular fury and police ineffectiveness benefited the opposition leaders who took power after Bakiyev fled amid clashes that killed at least 85 people. But the same conditions now pose a challenge to their fragile government as it seeks to restore order, rebuild the state and deliver results to an impatient public.

Violence flared again Monday with ethnic fighting outside Bishkek leaving at least five dead. Meanwhile, Bakiyev loyalists in the south continue to defy the new government, which has already been forced to replace its police minister twice. Some analysts warn that the Muslim country may slip into chaos, providing a haven for radicals and jeopardizing the U.S. air base, which supports NATO operations in Afghanistan.

"We're waiting to see what the new government does," Sarbashev said in a recent interview, his ear still bandaged. "If they don't make things better, even if they put five rows of tanks in front of us, we'll destroy them, too."

The night before the uprising, protesters briefly seized control of a state building in the city of Talas and badly beat Bakiyev's interior minister. Bakiyev responded by arresting about a dozen of his most prominent critics. The roundup decapitated the opposition on the eve of protests scheduled across the country but also provoked a backlash and left young crowds without elders who usually restrained them.

"We had always been accused of cowardice because we never let people storm government buildings," said Omurbek Tekebayev, one of those arrested. "But this time, all the opposition leaders were in jail, so there was no one in the streets to stop them."

Rocks fly at police

The first clash in Bishkek occurred about 10:30 a.m. outside an opposition party's offices, where politicians who had escaped arrest were expected to speak. Police blocked access to the building, and when people refused to leave, officers encircled some of them and began beating them and trying to drag them away, witnesses said.

But the crowd of hundreds fought back, throwing rocks and forcing the 50 or so officers to retreat into nearby buildings. Some were beaten, and others were forced to surrender their shields and batons.

Reinforcements arrived and fired tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades. But the protesters overwhelmed them as well, seizing their weapons and trucks. At least one squad retreated against its commander's orders, witnesses said.

Ulanbek Djumanaev, an army veteran at the scene, recalled how one officer locked himself in a truck only to surrender when protesters threatened to set the vehicle on fire. "The crowd just overpowered them," he said.

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