JALALABAD, Kyrgyzstan (Reuters) - Around 5,000 people in President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s southwestern homeland demonstrated in favour of unity on Saturday, urging supporters of his overthrown government not to start a civil war.
The crowd, mostly ethnic Uzbeks, prayed and called for national unity in the impoverished nation of 5.3 million people, where clan and ethnic rivalries divide the country’s mountainous north from Bakiyev’s homeland.
The crowd vastly outnumbered the 200 supporters of Bakiyev who gathered several kilometres away in the centre of Jalalabad. The president has fled to his home region after his troops fired into protesters during Wednesday’s uprising in the capital.
“I know one thing: that Bakiyev and his brothers want to gather their supporters and stage a rebellion so that there is a split between north and south. He will not succeed,” Kadyrzhan Batyrov, head of the Uzbek community in Jalalabad, told Reuters.
“He may still believe that he has many supporters, but this is not so,” he said. “The only people who would support him are those who plundered the nation alongside him.”
Bakiyev, who has refused to step down, is believed to be in hiding somewhere in Jalalabad region. His exact whereabouts are unknown.
The president, an ethnic Kyrgyz, retreated from Bishkek while riots swept the capital city and looters stormed the presidential palace after smashing trucks through the perimeter fencing. At least 78 people were killed in the violence.
The head of Kyrgyzstan’s self-proclaimed government, Roza Otunbayeva, has promised Bakiyev safe passage from the country should he resign. She helped Bakiyev rise to power five years ago in the “Tulip Revolution” before the two fell out.
“Those martyrs did not die in vain on the main square of Bishkek,” said Muhammed Akhmedov, 69-year-old imam at a local mosque, who led a commemorative prayer.
“They died for stability, for the friendship of the people. We must therefore support the new authorities to preserve stability not only in Jalalabad but in the whole of Kyrgyzstan.”
Uzbeks comprise approximately 40 percent of the 1 million population of Jalalabad region. In the neighbouring region of Osh, they account for at least half.
Kyrgyzstan is split by clan rivalries and divisions need not necessarily be on ethnic grounds. Otunbayeva has accused Bakiyev’s supporters of stoking further violence in Bishkek.
The new general prosecutor under the interim government, Baitemir Ibrayev, said on Friday a criminal case had been opened against Bakiyev’s son, Maxim, and brothers Zhanybek and Marat.
“People are in peaceful mood. No one wants any stand-off between north and south,” said Batyrov, also president of the University of Friendship of Peoples outside which the gathering of 5,000 people took place.
Several kilometres away, about 200 supporters of Bakiyev, many of them elderly, gathered in the main square of Jalalabad. Some praised his rule in comparison with that of his predecessor and Kyrgyzstan’s first ex-Soviet leader, Askar Akayev.
“He laid asphalt roads. He repaired local buildings. He paid our pensions and other allowances regularly,” said Totu Karymshakova, 75, a pensioner and mother of 14.
“We needed one year to topple Akayev and to take state power into our own hands. Those drunks and tramps grabbed state power in just three hours.”
Begimdzhan Attakurova, 64, said the new self-proclaimed leadership must take responsibility for the violence.
“It is this opposition that wants to sow inter-ethnic hatred and this disorder plays right into their hands. Under Bakiyev, our lives only started to get better, and now we have to start all over again.”
Behind the crowd, a billboard depicting a smiling Bakiyev shaking hands with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev loomed over the square.
Surmayim Chekelekova, a housewife, said: “If this sort of opposition has grabbed state power in Kyrgyzstan, maybe it would be better to become part of Russia?”
Writing by Robin Paxton; editing by Myra MacDonald