Anti-government protests sweep Kyrgyzstan, govt says at least 17 killed, 180 woundedBy Peter Leonard, AP
Wednesday, April 7, 2010
Anti-govt protests sweep Kyrgyzstan, 17 said dead
BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — Anti-government unrest rocked the Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan on Wednesday as thousands of protesters stormed the main government building, set fire to the prosecutor’s office and looted state TV headquarters. At least 17 people were killed and at least 180 wounded in clashes, the government said.
The opposition took over state television and announced that it was negotiating with the president and demanding he step down. Government officials could not immediately be reached for comment on the claim.
The eruption of violence shattered the relative stability of this mountainous former Soviet nation, which houses a U.S. military base that is a key supply center in the fight against the Taliban in nearby Afghanistan.
Furious over government corruption and a recent hike in power prices, demonstrators looted the state television and radio building. Elite police opened fire to drive crowds back from government headquarters. Protesters marched toward the Interior Ministry in the capital, Bishkek, according to Associated Press reporters on the scene, before changing direction and attacking a national security building nearby. They were repelled by security forces.
Omurbek Tekebayev, the leader of Ata-Meken, the main opposition party, said on television that he wanted every family to adopt the philosophy “freedom or death.”
Opposition activist Shamil Murat told the AP that Interior Minister Moldomusa Kongatiyev was beaten to death by a mob in the western town of Talas where the unrest erupted 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.
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.
Health Ministry spokeswoman Yelena Bayalinova said 180 people were hurt in the clashes Wednesday, without elaborating. Opposition activist Toktoim Umetalieva said 17 people died after police opened fire with live ammunition. The number of dead was confirmed by another government health official speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
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. Some seized the state television and radio building, and were looting; others marched toward the Interior Ministry, which oversees the former Soviet republic’s police force.
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 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.”
Associated Press Writer Leila Saralayeva contributed to this report.
Tags: Asia, Bishkek, Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan, Municipal Governments, Political Corruption, Political Issues, Protests And Demonstrations, Violence