April 8, 2010 / 1:50 AM / 9 years ago

Kyrgyz opposition seizes power, dissolves parliament

BISHKEK (Reuters) - Kyrgyzstan’s opposition said on Thursday it had taken power and dissolved parliament in the poor and strategically important Central Asian state after protests forced President Kurmanbek Bakiyev to flee the capital.

People pass by a burnt police building in Bishkek April 8, 2010. REUTERS/Vladimir Pirogov

Roza Otunbayeva, leader of the interim government, demanded the resignation of the president, whom she helped bring to power five years ago. She said Bakiyev was trying to rally supporters in his power base in southern Kyrgyzstan.

“People in Kyrgyzstan want to build democracy. What we did yesterday was our answer to the repression and tyranny against the people by the Bakiyev regime,” Otunbayeva, who once served as foreign minister under Bakiyev, told reporters.

“You can call this revolution. You can call this a people’s revolt. Either way, it is our way of saying that we want justice and democracy.”

Bishkek awoke to blazing cars and burned-out shops on Thursday after a day in which at least 68 people were killed in clashes between protesters and security forces.

Black plumes of smoke billowed from the White House, or the main seat of government, as crowds rampaged through the seven-storey building setting several rooms on fire.

The uprising, which began on Tuesday in a provincial town, was sparked by discontent over corruption, nepotism and rising prices in a nation where a third of the 5.3 million population live below the poverty line.

The United States has a military air base supporting troops in Afghanistan in the Kyrgyz city of Manas and is a major donor to Kyrgyzstan, along with China and Russia, which also has a military base in the former Soviet state.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s spokesman said Otunbayeva had told him by telephone she was in full control of the country and he saw her as “the new head of government”.

Putin earlier denied Moscow had played a hand in the clashes and Otunbayeva said the new government would preserve an agreement allowing the U.S. base to operate.

“Its status quo will remain in place. We still have some questions on it. Give us time and we will listen to all the sides and solve everything,” she said.

Bakiyev announced the base would close during a visit to Moscow last year at which he also secured $2 billion in crisis aid, only to agree later to keep the base open at a higher rent.

The White House said U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dimitry Medvedev were likely to discuss Kyrgyzstan when they sign an arms control treaty in Prague on Thursday.

PRESIDENT FLEES

Bakiyev fled Bishkek to southern Kyrgyzstan, his traditional power base in a nation split by clan rivalries. A witness said he arrived late on Wednesday at the airport in Osh, and Otunbayeva said later he was in his home region of Jalalabad.

“We want to negotiate his resignation,” she said. “His business here is over ... The people who were killed here yesterday are the victims of his regime.”

She said the entire country was under the control of the interim government, except for Osh and Jalalabad. Armed forces and border guards supported the new government, she said.

Spokesmen for the president were not available for comment.

In the centre of Osh, hundreds of Bakiyev’s supporters scuffled with opponents of his regime, a Reuters reporter said. Opponents of Bakiyev took control of the government building.

Many of those who died in the capital suffered gunshot wounds. Protesters stormed the government building that Bakiyev left behind, smashing trucks through the perimeter fencing.

A Reuters reporter inside the building saw demonstrators walking over broken glass and smashed computers and sending papers cascading from windows.

“The whole country is on fire,” said Nurlan Aslybekov, an unemployed man who travelled to Bishkek from the town of Talas, where the first anti-government protests broke out on Tuesday.

The U.S.-led NATO alliance said it had temporarily suspended supply flights through Manas and some aircraft had been moved due to the unrest, but the interruption should not significantly affect operations or logistical support in Afghanistan. The U.S. embassy in Bishkek said later the base was operating normally.

Bakiyev came to power in the 2005 “Tulip Revolution” protests, led jointly by Otunbayeva, which ousted Kyrgyzstan’s first post-Soviet president, Askar Akayev. She briefly served as acting foreign minister before falling out with Bakiyev.

GUNSHOT WOUNDS

The opposition said at least 100 people had been killed on Wednesday. The Health Ministry put the death toll in Bishkek at 68 dead, and said 520 people had been injured.

Political unrest over poverty, rising prices and corruption has gripped Kyrgyzstan since early March. The average monthly wage is about $130 and remittances from workers in Russia have fallen sharply during the global economic crisis.

“It was a never ending rip-off. Every day they would raise prices for gas, for water, and in the end is it good to shoot at your own people?” said Alioglu Samedov, 62, a retired lawyer.

Analysts said the unrest would also increase uncertainty for foreign investors in Kyrgyzstan’s mining sector and raised the possibility of outside military intervention.

Canadian mining company Centerra Gold said on Wednesday its flagship Kumtor gold mine in Kyrgyzstan had so far been unaffected by the violence, but its shares fell 22 Canadian cents to C$13.32 on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

“Bakiyev is unlikely to return to power but the prevailing uncertainty poses severe risks to foreign investors, raises the possibility of foreign intervention and will directly affect U.S. interests in Central Asia,” said Eurasia Group analyst Ana Jelenkovic.

The foreign ministry in China, which shares a border with Kyrgyzstan, said it was “deeply concerned” about the unrest.

Additional reporting by Olga Dzyubenko in Bishkek; Khulkar Isamova in Osh; Lucy Hornby in Beijing and Peter Graff in Kabul; Writing by Robin Paxton and Alison Williams; Editing by Louise Ireland and Philippa Fletcher

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