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Anti-govt protests sweep Kyrgyzstan, 100 said dead

Liz De La Torre

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From The Associated Press

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan – Thousands of protesters furious over corruption and spiraling utility bills seized government buildings and clashed with police Wednesday in Kyrgyzstan, throwing control of the Central Asian nation into doubt. Police opened fire on demonstrators, killing dozens and wounding hundreds.

The eruption of violence shattered the relative stability of this mountainous former Soviet republic, which houses a U.S. military base that is a key supply center in the fight against the Taliban in nearby Afghanistan. The unrest in Kyrgyzstan did not appear likely to spread across former Soviet Central Asia, however.

The chaos erupted after elite police at government headquarters in the capital, Bishkek, began shooting to drive back crowds of demonstrators called onto the streets by opposition parties for a day of protest.

The crowds took control of the state TV building and looted it, then marched toward the Interior Ministry, according to Associated Press reporters on the scene, before changing direction and attacking a national security building nearby. They were repelled by security forces.

The leader of the main opposition party said on the former state television channel that he had formed a new government and was negotiating with the president and demanding he step down. Government officials could not immediately be reached for comment on the claim.

Dozens of wounded demonstrators lined the corridors of one of Bishkek’s main hospitals, a block away from the main square, where doctors were unable to cope with the flood of patients. Weeping nurses slumped over dead bodies, doctors shouted at each other and the floors were covered in blood.

Kyrgyzstan’s Health Ministry said 40 people had died and more than 400 were wounded in clashes with police. Opposition activist Toktoim Umetalieva said at least 100 people had died after police opened fire with live ammunition.

Opposition activist Shamil Murat told the AP that Interior Minister Moldomusa Kongatiyev had been beaten to death by a mob in the western town of Talas where the unrest began a day ago. The respected Fergana.ru Web site reported later that Kongatiyev was badly beaten but had not died, saying its own reporter had witnessed the beating.

The unrest began Tuesday in the western city of Talas, where demonstrators stormed a government office and held a governor hostage, prompting a government warning of “severe” repercussions for continuing unrest.

The opposition called nationwide protests for Wednesday, vowing to defy increasingly authoritarian President Kurmanbek Bakiyev.

Since coming to power in 2005 on a wave of street protests known as the Tulip Revolution, Bakiyev has ensured a measure of stability, but many observers say he has done so at the expense of democratic standards while enriching himself and his family.

Over the past two years, Kyrgyz authorities have clamped down on free media, and opposition activists say they have routinely been subjected to physical intimidation and targeted by politically motivated criminal investigations. Many of the opposition leaders once were allies of Bakiyev.

Anti-government forces have been in disarray until recently, but widespread anger over a 200 percent hike in electricity and heating gas bills has galvanized the fractious opposition.

Police in Bishkek at first used rubber bullets, tear gas, water cannons and concussion grenades Wednesday to try to control crowds of young men clad in black who were chasing police officers, beating them up and seizing their arms, trucks and armored personnel carriers.

Some protesters then tried to use a personnel carrier to ram the gates of the government headquarters, known as the White House. Many of the protesters threw rocks, but about a half dozen young protesters shot Kalashnikovs into the air from the square in front of the building.

“We don’t want this rotten power!” protester Makhsat Talbadyev said, as he and others in Bishkek waved opposition party flags and chanted: “Bakiyev out!”

Some 200 elite police began firing, pushing the crowd back from the government headquarters. The president was not seen in public Wednesday and his whereabouts were unclear.

Protesters set fire to the prosecutor general’s office in the city center, and a giant plume of black smoke billowed into the sky.

Groups of protesters then set out across Bishkek, attacking more government buildings.

At least 10 opposition leaders were arrested overnight and were being held at the security headquarters in Bishkek, opposition lawmaker Irina Karamushkina said.

One of them, Temir Sariyev, was freed Wednesday by protesters.

The U.S. State Department called for peace and restraint on both sides.

The prime minister, meanwhile, accused the opposition of provoking the violence in the country of 5 million people.

“What kind of opposition is this? They are just bandits,” Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov said.

Unrest also broke out for a second day in the western town of Talas and spread to the southern city of Naryn.

Some 5,000 protesters seized Naryn’s regional administration building and installed a new governor, opposition activist Adilet Eshenov said. At least four people were wounded in clashes, including the regional police chief, he said.

Another 10,000 protesters stormed police headquarters Wednesday in Talas, where on Tuesday protesters had held the regional governor hostage in his office.

The protesters beat up the interior minister, Kongatiyev, and forced him to call his subordinates in Bishkek and call off the crackdown on protesters, a correspondent for the local affiliate of U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty said.

Witnesses said the crowd in Talas looted police headquarters Wednesday, removing computers and furniture. Dozens of police officers left the building and mingled with protesters.

In the eastern region of Issyk-Kul, protesters seized the regional administration building and declared they installed their governor, the Ata-Meken opposition party said on its Web site.

Hundreds of protesters overran the government building Tuesday on Talas’ main square. They were initially dispersed by baton-wielding police, but then fought through tear gas and flash grenades to regroup, burning police cars and hurling stones and Molotov cocktails.

Usenov said Tuesday’s violence in Talas had left 85 officers injured and 15 unaccounted for.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who met with Bakiyev in Kyrgyzstan on Sunday, arrived in Moscow on Wednesday at the end of a trip to several Central Asian nations.

“The secretary-general is shocked by the reported deaths and injuries that have occurred today in Kyrgyzstan,” U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said. “He once again calls on all concerned to show restraint. He urgently appeals for dialogue and calm to avoid further bloodshed.”

The leaders of the four other former Soviet republics in the region were certain to be watching events in Bishkek with concern, but the authoritarian, and in some cases dictatorial, natures of their governments would likely allow them to squash any attempts to challenge their rules.

In Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, people have been too terrified to challenge Stalinist-style governments. In Tajikistan, the legacy of a 1990s civil war has made people wary of conflict. Immediate unrest also appeared unlikely in energy-rich Kazakhstan, where politically apathy is combined with a weak opposition.

After the March 2005 protests that brought Bakiyev to power, some hoped that the democracy he then promised to bring to Kyrgyzstan would spread to the other former Soviet republics in the region. But those countries responded by clamping down further, equating democracy with regime change.

Just two months later, in May 2005, the Uzbek government brutally suppressed an uprising in the city of Andijan.

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The Student News Source of the University of New Haven
Anti-govt protests sweep Kyrgyzstan, 100 said dead