Wednesday, April 7, 2010

At least 17 killed in Kyrgyz anti-government protests

BISHKEK (Reuters) - At least 17 people were killed in the capital of Kyrgyzstan in clashes on Wednesday between police and thousands of protesters trying to topple the president of the impoverished Central Asian state.

The Kyrgyz Kabar news agency also said 142 people were wounded in the unrest, but an emergency services official said more than 50 people may have been killed.

Riot police used tear gas and flash grenades to battle a crowd wielding automatic rifles and iron bars outside the office of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, bringing nationwide unrest to the heart of the ex-Soviet state of 5.3 million people.

Kyrgyz Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov, who earlier dismissed the protesters in Talas as "bandits," told Reuters by telephone that he and the president were both working in their offices.

"We daren't even look out of the window," Kamil Sydykov, the prime minister's spokesman, said by telephone from inside the presidential building.

Some 1,000 people stormed the prosecutor-general's office in the capital and were breaking windows and tossing out computers and office equipment, a Reuters reporter said. Opposition activists also took control of state television channel KTR.

Protesters seized government buildings in three other towns in Kyrgyzstan, which hosts U.S. and Russian military bases and relies heavily on remittances from migrant workers in Russia.

In one town, Talas, Kyrgyz First Deputy Prime Minister Aklybek Japarov and Interior Minister Moldomusa Kongantiyev were badly beaten. Kongantiyev was forced to shout: "Down with Bakiyev!," two witnesses said.

UNREST SPREADS

Political unrest has gripped Kyrgyzstan since early March over widespread poverty, rising prices and official corruption.

The opposition in Kyrgyzstan has been demanding that Bakiyev, who himself came to power in a popular revolt in 2005, tackle corruption and fire his relatives from senior positions.

Kyrgyzstan is heavily reliant on support from both the United States and Russia, as well as neighboring China, so their reaction to the unrest and government crackdown would be critical, said Alexei Vlasov, a Moscow political scientist.

"If the reaction is firmly negative, Bakiyev will be in a very difficult situation because the economic situation in the country is severe," he said.

Russia has so far called for restraint. "We would like to make an urgent appeal to the hostile parties to refrain from the use of force to avoid bloodshed," Andrei Nesterenko, spokesman for Russia's Foreign Ministry, said in a statement.

The government declared a state of emergency and said a curfew would be enforced between 8:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. in Bishkek and three other regions of Kyrgyzstan.

Bakiyev, from the south of Kyrgyzstan, has angered clans from Bishkek, Talas and other regions by appointing in his own kinsmen to senior positions, and excluding others from power, said Reinhard Krumm, director of a Moscow think-tank.

The protests spread to the capital after riots which began in Talas the day before and continued into Wednesday.


"We will stay here until the end, no matter what the government does," Talas Kadyraliyev, a 45-year-old local opposition activist, told Reuters from the scene.

In Naryn, a town in central Kyrgyzstan, more than 1,000 opponents of the president also took over the local government building, witnesses told Reuters. The government headquarters in a southern village, Kerben, were also occupied by protesters.

Analysts said poverty in Kyrgyzstan, where the average monthly wage is about $130 a month, was a major factor in the protests, as well as falling income from remittances from Kyrgyz workers in Russia due to the economic problems there.

Last week, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited Bishkek and called on the government to do more to protect human rights. The United Nations said on Tuesday Ban was concerned at events in Talas and urged all parties to show restraint.

(Additional reporting by Alexander Reshetnikov and Maria Golovnina in Bishkek and Conor Sweeney in Moscow; Writing by Robin Paxton; Editing by Jon Hemming)

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