Civil unrest engulfed the politically troubled central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan on Wednesday, with the government declaring a state of emergency and street fighting in the capital resulting in at least 40 deaths, and over 400 injuries, according to reports.
The Kyrgyz Health Ministry said that along with the deaths around 400 people were wounded in fighting in Bishkek, the capital, between demonstrators supporting the political opposition and police, and the casualty toll is expected to rise.
Interfax said Kabar, the Kyrgyz news agency, reported that the building of the National Security Service in Bishkek had been seized and that the detainees had been released from its pre-trial jail. The service denied the report, according to Interfax, and said protesters made an unsuccessful attempt to seize the building. Cars were seen ablaze near the structure.
Interfax also said the building housing the Office of the Prosecutor General burned down, and eyewitnesses said that opposition supporters occupied the second floor of the parliament building.
Witnesses were quoted as saying that protesters got hold of an armored personnel carrier and weapons thought to have been taken from police. Houses belonging to members of the president’s family were looted and were set ablaze. Protesters attempted to storm the president’s office but were held back by security forces, who reportedly fired live rounds into the crowd.
Police initially used rubber bullets, water cannons, tear gas and concussion grenades to try to keep the crowds at bay. The protesters, mostly young men dressed in black, chased after officers, attacked them and seized their guns, trucks, and armoured vehicles. Several young demonstrators fired assault rifles into the air from the square in front of the building.
Earlier, police had used tear gas and stun grenades to try to break up crowds outside an opposition headquarters but the protesters overcame the police and marched to the presidential offices in the city center. Police cars were overturned and set alight and officers attacked the crowd, some of whom were armed.
Protesters were seen with Molotov cocktail ingredients and one participant of the country’s political discord in 2005 said thousands of supporters of Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakievwere headed to Bishkek to restore order, the Kyrgyz news agency reported.
The country has experienced political tensions for years, and the United States has a military base there that serves as a critical supply link to Afghanistan.
Earlier, human rights activist Toktaim Umetaliyeva had told Interfax 10 people at an opposition rally had been shot and killed by police dispersing demonstrators near a government building.
Using riot gear, stun grenades and dogs, police detained protesters and hauled them away in buses.
Quoting eyewitnesses, Interfax reported that police managed to push opposition supporters away from the square outside a Kyrgyz government building in Bishkek. Some protesters stopped buses in attempts to block central streets.
The fighting erupted amid political unrest between opposition forces and the government in the cities of Bishkek, Talas and Naryn. Russia state media reported that the Bishkek unrest was triggered by clashes that took place in Talas where some opposition leaders were arrested.
Protesters want detained opposition leaders to be released, and Interfax is reporting that opposition supporters have seized control of Naryn, Talas and other towns, such as Tokmok, Karakol and Choipanata.
Two Kyrgyz opposition figures – Temir Saryiev and Isa Omurkulov – who had been detained by local special services, were released and headed off to meet with government officials, including Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov, Interfax said.
The opposition – galvanized by growing public dissent under the increasingly authoritarian President Bakiyev and angered over a recent 200 per cent hike in electricity and gas bills – has vowed not to be intimidated by a government crackdown.
Opposition activist Shamil Murat told the Associated Press that Interior Minister Moldomusa Kongatiyev was beaten to death by a mob in the western town of Talas where the unrest erupted Tuesday.
Azimbek Beknazarov, an opposition leader who once was prosecutor general, said during a rally in Naryn that “seizing power in the region is not our main objective. Rather, our prime goal is to change power in the country.” (CNN)
Another opposition figure, Omurbek Tekebayev said on a national TV channel controlled by the opposition that its leaders have agreed to hold talks with the prime minister, Interfax reported. But he is quoted as saying that the “only objective” is the resignation of authorities. He urged opposition supporters to refrain from looting and other illegal activity.
Tekebayev said a militia would be formed to impose public order in Bishkek and parts of the country where the opposition is in control. He said he believes opposition supporters are working to free Ismail Isakov, a former defence minister. If he is freed, he’ll take over armed forces, Tekebayev said.
Interfax is an independent Russian news agency. Interfax is reporting that broadcasting by the Kyrgyz state television channel resumed after it had been suspended. The channel had stopped the broadcasts after opposition activists seized the television center earlier on Wednesday. Broadcasts are now showing opposition activists delivering short speeches lasting two to three minutes.
Attempts to reach Kyrgyz government officials for comment have not been successful.
Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev sent a decree to parliament for the imposition of a curfew as demonstrators clashed with police in Bishkek. Kabar reported the curfew was imposed in Bishkek and three other provinces for a month. Street traffic in Bishkek will be limited between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. and people need to carry passports or other identification with them. Bishkek’s international airport will be closed from 8 p.m. Wednesday (10 a.m. ET) to 8 a.m. Thursday (10 p.m. ET Wednesday), Interfax reported, quoting an airport source.
The prime minister, meanwhile, accused the opposition of provoking violence in the country of five million people. “What kind of opposition is this? They are just bandits,” Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov said. (CBC)
Russia, meanwhile, is calling on Kyrgyz authorities and the opposition to settle all disputes without force and with a democratic process. It also stepped up security at its air base in Kant. “On the assumption of our interests to secure political stability in a country that is friendly to ours, we believe it is important that all issues in the given situation be resolved within the legal framework. At the same time we would like to strongly appeal to the opposing forces to refrain from the use of force to avoid bloodshed in any case,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said. (CNN)
Mr. Putin denied that Moscow had played any role in the clashes. “Neither Russia, nor your humble servant, nor Russian officials have any links whatsoever to these events,” the RIA news agency quoted him as saying.
The Pentagon said the U.S. base and its personnel are not affected and there has been no change in security there. The British Foreign Office is advising “against all but essential travel” to Kyrgyzstan. The German Foreign Ministry issued a statement calling for moderation from both sides.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Wednesday that he is “shocked” by the reports of violence and urged all sides to show restraint, engage in dialogue and promote calm. The secretary-general also expressed his concern Tuesday over reports that demonstrators in Kyrgyzstan had seized a government building in Talas. They had been protesting the high costs of fuel and electricity. “While freedom of assembly is an essential element of any democratic society, the rule of law must be respected,” said Ban, who urged dialogue to resolve disputes.
Ban – who visited Kyrgyzstan on Saturday during a trip to central Asia – urged the government to protect free speech and press freedom. There have been reports of restrictions on the freedom of expression and the press in the country, the United Nations said, including the recent closure of an opposition newspaper and other media outlets.
In the U.S. State Department’s 2009 human rights report about Kyrgyzstan, it cites independent election observers as saying “the July 23 presidential election failed to meet any of the country’s international commitments.” It “was marred by significant obstacles for opposition parties, intimidation, voting irregularities, and the use of government resources to benefit specific political interests.” (CNN)
A key opposition leader has said the government has now resigned but there is no official confirmation. The leader, Temir Sariyev, said Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov had agreed to tender the government’s resignation and that Mr. Bakiyev had left Bishkek.
Mr. Sariyev said a new “people’s government” has been formed, headed by a former foreign minister, Roza Otunbayeva. (BBC) The Agence France-Presse news agency quoted an airport employee as saying that Mr. Bakiyev had flown out of Bishkek aboard a small plan. A senior opposition figure, Galina Skripkina, told Reuters news agency the president had flown to the southern city of Osh. However, the Russian RIA news agency quoted a government source as saying the president was still in the city.
The U.S. State Department, meanwhile, said it believed the Kyrgyz government “remains in power.” (BBC)
Bakiyev came to power after spearheading street protests in 2005 dubbed the Tulip Revolution, which ousted his predecessor, accused of corruption, cronyism, and cracking down the opposition. Five years later, Bakiyev is facing similar accusations from an opposition that says he has sacrificed democratic standards to maintain order while consolidating power in the hands of his brothers and son.
Authorities over the past two years have clamped down on the media, and opposition activists say they have been subjected to intimidation and politically motivated criminal investigations.