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

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 25, 2010; A15

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.

By midday, the demonstrators were on the march toward the city center. Their ranks swelled as people called friends and relatives to join them, jamming mobile phone networks. Djumanaev said as many as 50,000 filled the streets.

Riot police tried to stop them, but a light rain diluted their tear gas, and the crowds forced them to retreat again and again.

One police official involved, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified data, said the response was limited by an understaffed police force, which with less than 8,000 officers nationwide is one of the region's smallest. Neighboring Kazakhstan employs more than twice as many officers per capita and Russia more than three times as many, according to U.N. data.

"No one wants to work here," the official said, noting that police also failed to contain a revolt five years ago. "Salaries are low, and nobody is interested in protecting the state."

The shooting starts

As police scattered, the demonstrators split up and took control of key buildings, including the offices of the KNB, local successor to the Soviet-era KGB. Protesters freed jailed opposition leaders and seized an armored personnel carrier there, driving it to the city's main square with people sitting on it and waving flags.

But next to the plaza, Bakiyev prepared a last stand on the seventh floor of the government's headquarters, the White House, protected by a military force known as the presidential security service. His brother Janish commanded the unit, which had recently been strengthened with soldiers from the National Guard, an elite division that had received training and equipment from the U.S. military.

The first shots came after protesters used a truck to knock down one of the gates in the fence around the building. Emil Turgunbayev, 33, a university lecturer, said he and other unarmed protesters suddenly came under fire after running through the opening.

"There were about 10 of us, and eight were shot and killed," he said while visiting another survivor, Akbar Ismailov, 36, who suffered a gunshot wound to his head.

Janish Bakiyev, now a fugitive, has acknowledged giving the order to open fire, saying his forces "tried not to shoot at those without weapons." But witnesses said the snipers gunned down protesters indiscriminately in an attempt to scare them off.

Vladimir Pirogov, a local photojournalist, said he saw them kill an unarmed man who approached the fence to negotiate a truce. Jepara Arikava, a human rights activist, said a college student next to her was shot in the head as he took a photo with his cellphone. And many were killed when the security forces fired on the armored personnel carrier, witnesses said.

But the protesters refused to back down, driven by anger they said had been building for months over economic misery and corruption by the Bakiyev family. "Today or never," they chanted, reminding each other that Bakiyev would order mass arrests if he prevailed.

Meanwhile, panic and confusion gripped the security forces, who bused in more than 200 unarmed cadets and faculty from the police academy to help defend the building. "It was a total mess," said Aibek Adilov, one of the instructors at the scene. "We were teachers and students, absolutely unprepared."

The crowd seemed unfazed by the gunfire, he said, and as nightfall arrived, the number of protesters returning fire with weapons they had seized grew. Two cadets were killed, authorities say, and nearly 600 officers were wounded before Bakiyev fled and the security forces finally received orders to abandon the building.

Ole Solvang, a researcher at Human Rights Watch who is examining the revolt, urged a thorough investigation of the violence with international help, calling it crucial to developing public trust in the new government and an "important first test" of its leaders.

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