AP Exclusive: Kyrgyz uprising seizes security HQ
By PETER LEONARD Associated Press Writer
Posted: 04/07/2010 12:29:44 AM MDT
BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan—Thousands of protesters furious over corruption and spiraling utility bills seized internal security headquarters, a state TV channel and other levers of power in Kyrgyzstan on Wednesday after government forces fatally shot dozens of demonstrators and wounded hundreds.
A revolution in the Central Asian nation was proclaimed by leaders of the opposition, who have called for the closure of a U.S. air base outside the capital that serves as a key transit point for supplies essential to the war in nearby Afghanistan.
The U.S. State Department said transport operations at the Manas base were "functioning normally."
This mountainous former Soviet republic erupted when protesters called onto the streets by opposition parties for a day of protest began storming government buildings in the capital, Bishkek, and clashed with police. Groups of elite officers opened fire.
The Health Ministry said 40 people had died and more than 400 were wounded. Opposition activist Toktoim Umetalieva said at least 100 people had died after police opened fire with live ammunition.
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 President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, whose whereabouts were a mystery.
The opposition and its supporters appeared to gain the upper hand after nightfall, and an Associated Press 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 Duishebayev said were security agents. He also gave orders to a uniformed special forces commando.
Duishebayev told the AP that "we have created units to restore order" on the streets. He said Bakiyev may have fled to Osh, the country's second-largest city, where he has a home.
Since coming to power in 2005 on a wave of street protests known as the Tulip Revolution, Bakiyev had 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. 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.
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, in some cases former ministers or diplomats.
The anti-government forces in Kyrgyzstan were in disarray until recent widespread anger over the 200 percent hike in electricity and heating gas bills helped unify them and galvanize 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 utility bill hikes and were easily stirred up by opposition claims of corruption in Bakiyev's circle. Kyrgyz are secular Muslims, and Islamist sentiments do not appear to have played a role in the uprising.
Kyrgyz protester move towards a line of riot police near the main government buildings in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Wednesday, April 7, 2010. Police in Kyrgyzstan opened fire on thousands of angry protesters who tried to seize the main government building amid rioting in the capital as protests spread across the Central Asian nation. ((AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev))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 it shuttered 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.
Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov on Wednesday morning accused the opposition of having Russia's support. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin
An injured Kyrgyz protester is treated in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Wednesday, April 7, 2010, following clashes with police. Police in Kyrgyzstan opened fire on thousands of angry protesters who tried to seize the main government building amid rioting in the capital as protests spread across the Central Asian nation. ((AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev))denied any involvement in the uprising.
"Russian officials have absolutely nothing to do with this," he said in the city of Smolensk. "Personally, these events caught me completely by surprise."
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 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 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.
Protesters set fire to the prosecutor general's office in the city center, and a giant plume of black smoke billowed into the sky.
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.
At one point police fled across the square from a large group of stone-throwing demonstrators. In another street, a small group of 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 bloodstained, tried to escape as a protester aimed kicks in their direction.
Groups of protesters then set out across Bishkek, attacking more government buildings.
An Associated Press 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 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.
Opposition activist Shamil Murat told the AP that Interior Minister Moldomusa Kongatiyev had been beaten to death by a mob in Talas. 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.
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 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.
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.
At least 10 opposition leaders were arrested overnight and were being held at the security headquarters in Bishkek, opposition lawmaker Irina Karamushkina said.
At least one of them, Temir Sariyev, was freed Wednesday by protesters.
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.
Associated Press Writer Leila Saralayeva contributed to this report.