BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — Opposition leaders declared they had seized power in Kyrgyzstan, taking control of security headquarters, a state TV channel and other government buildings after clashes between police and protesters killed dozens in this Central Asian nation that houses a key U.S. air base.
President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who came to power in a similar popular uprising five years ago, was said to have fled to the southern city of Osh, and it was difficult to gauge how much of the impoverished, mountainous country the opposition controlled Wednesday.
“The security service and the Interior Ministry … all of them are already under the management of new people,” Rosa Otunbayeva, a former foreign minister who the opposition leaders said would head the interim government, told the Russian-language Mir TV channel.
The opposition has called for the closure of the U.S. air base in Manas outside the capital of Bishkek that is a key transit point for supplies essential to the war in nearby Afghanistan.
A senior U.S. military official said Kyrgyzstan officials halted flights for 12 hours on Wednesday at Manas air base. The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said the base closed around 8 p.m. local time and was expected to reopen around 8 a.m. Thursday.
Other military officials said the suspension was not expected to impact military operations because fewer flights were scheduled during overnight hours.
During the day, protesters who were called into the streets by opposition parties stormed government buildings in Bishkek and battled with police amid volleys of tear gas. Groups of elite officers then fired with live ammunition.
The Health Ministry said 40 people died and more than 400 were wounded. Opposition activist Toktoim Umetaliyeva said at least 100 people were killed by police gunfire.
Crowds of demonstrators 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 loyal to Bakiyev.
After nightfall, the opposition and its supporters appeared to gain the upper hand. An AP reporter saw opposition leader Keneshbek Duishebayev sitting in the office of the chief of the National Security Agency, Kyrgyzstan’s successor to the Soviet KGB. Duishebayev issued orders on the phone to people he said were security agents, and he also gave orders to a uniformed special forces commando.
Duishebayev, the former interior minister, told the AP that “we have created units to restore order” on the streets. Many of the opposition leaders were once allies of Bakiyev, in some cases former ministers or diplomats.
Bakiyev may have fled to Osh, the country’s second-largest city, where he has a home, Duishebayev said.
Since coming to power in 2005 amid street protests known as the Tulip Revolution, Bakiyev had ensured a measure of stability in the country of 5 million people, but the opposition says he has done so at the expense of democratic standards while enriching himself and his family. He gave his relatives, including his son, top government and economic posts and faced the same accusations of corruption and cronyism that led to the ouster of his predecessor, Askar Akayev.
In the past two years, authorities have clamped down on the media, and opposition activists say they have routinely been subjected to physical intimidation and targeted by politically motivated criminal investigations.
Like its neighbours Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan has remained impoverished since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and has a history of stifling democratic institutions and human rights.
Kyrgyzstan is a predominantly Muslim country, but just as in Soviet times, it has remained secular. There has been little fear of the spread of Islamic fundamentalism as in other mostly Muslim regions of the former Soviet Union.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin denied any involvement in the uprising.
“Russian officials have absolutely nothing to do with this,” he said in Smolensk in response to a journalist’s question. “Personally, these events caught me completely by surprise.”
He also criticized Bakiyev’s government for repeating Akayev’s mistakes.
“When President Bakiyev came to power, he was very harshly critical of the fact that the relatives of the deposed President Akayev had taken positions throughout Kyrgyzstan’s economy. I have the impression that Mr. Bakiyev is stepping on these same rakes.”
A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the uncertainty and delicacy of the situation, said the U.S. was in touch with government officials and the opposition.
“We want to see the situation resolved peacefully, consistent with the rule of law,” the official said. “Our conversation with the opposition at this stage is about finding out what is happening and encouraging a peaceful resolution.”
The anti-government forces were in disarray until recent widespread anger over the 200 per cent increase in electric and heating bills unified them and galvanized support. Many of Wednesday’s protesters were men from poor villages, including some who had come to the capital to live and work on construction sites.
Already struggling, they were outraged by the high cost of energy and were easily stirred up by opposition claims of official corruption.
In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the U.S. deplored the violence and urged all to respect the rule of law.
“We identify with the concerns that the people of Kyrgyzstan have about their future,” but those concerns should be dealt with peacefully, Crowley said, adding that the Manas base was operating normally.
Opposition leaders have said they want the base closed because it could put their country at risk if the United States becomes involved in a military conflict with Iran. Closing it would also please Russia, which has opposed the basing of U.S. troops on former Soviet turf.
The United States began using Manas in 2001, two months after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, and the base has become essential for transportation, refuelling and supply for U.S.-led military operations in Afghanistan.
In 2009, Kyrgyzstan said U.S. forces would have to leave Manas, citing improving security conditions in Afghanistan and dissatisfaction over commercial terms for the base. That eviction announcement came shortly after Russia agreed to grant Kyrgyzstan more than $2 billion in aid and loans, and U.S. officials suggested the eviction decision hinged on Moscow’s aid.
The government later reversed its stance and agreed to a revised one-year deal giving U.S. troops rights to use the facility. Under the new lease, the rent increased to $60 million a year, from $17 million.
In addition to the annual rent, the U.S. also will allocate $37 million to build new aircraft parking slots and storage areas, plus $30 million for new navigation systems. Washington has also committed to giving Kyrgyzstan $51.5 million to combat drug trafficking and terrorism and promote economic development.
The unrest began Tuesday in the western city of Talas, where demonstrators stormed a government office and held a governor hostage.
The opposition called nationwide protests for the next day and police in Bishkek at first used rubber bullets, tear gas, water cannons and concussion grenades to try to control crowds of young men in black.
Police often appeared outnumbered and overwhelmed, sometimes retreating when faced with protesters — including many armed with rocks and others who appeared to be carrying automatic weapons as they marched.
The youths beat up police and seized their arms, trucks and armoured personnel carriers.
Some protesters then tried to use an APC to ram the gates of the government headquarters, known as the White House. About a half-dozen young protesters shot automatic weapons 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 waved opposition party flags and chanted: “Bakiyev out!”
Some 200 elite police then began firing, pushing the crowd back.
Protesters set fire to the prosecutor general’s office and a giant plume of black smoke billowed into the sky.
At one point, police fled across the square from a large group of stone-throwing demonstrators. In another street, some police took refuge behind their shields as one of their colleagues lay unconscious at their feet, his face smeared with blood.
In another area, two policemen, their faces stained with blood, tried to escape as a protester aimed kicks in their direction.
Groups of protesters then set out across Bishkek, attacking more government buildings.
An AP reporter saw dozens of wounded demonstrators lining the corridors of one of Bishkek’s main hospitals, a block away from the main square, where doctors were overwhelmed with the flood of patients. Weeping nurses slumped over the dead, doctors shouted at each other and the floors were covered in blood.
Opposition activist Shamil Murat told the AP that Interior Minister Moldomusa Kongatiyev had been beaten to death by a mob in Talas. Later, the Fergana.ru Web site reported that Kongatiyev was badly beaten but had not died, saying its own reporter had witnessed the beating.
Unrest also broke out for a second day in Talas and spread to the southern city of Naryn.
Another 10,000 protesters stormed police headquarters in Talas. The protesters beat up Kongatiyev and forced him to telephone 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.
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.
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.
Associated Press writers Leila Saralayeva in Bishkek, Lynn Berry, Mansur Mirovalev and David Nowak in Moscow, and Matthew Lee and Anne Flaherty in Washington contributed to this report.