I am still the president, cries ousted Kyrgyz leader

Fugitive premier blames foreign interference for riots as opposition takes charge of shattered capital
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The Independent Online

Kyrgyzstan's President, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, refused to resign yesterday, as the country's opposition announced they were in charge, and Russia backed the revolutionaries as the legitimate new government.

A day after vicious clashes in the capital, Bishkek, left up to 100 dead, Mr Bakiyev spoke to The Independent and vowed he would not give up power easily. "I am the president," said the voice of Mr Bakiyev over a crackling phone line. "Nine months ago 77 per cent of the population elected me. Nobody has taken my mandate away, nobody has any right to claim power. This was an armed coup. There is no other way to put it."

The ousted Kyrgyz president left the capital after rioters fired on his windows. He refused to give his precise location but said he was in the south of Kyrgyzstan, his main power base. He insisted he was the country's legitimate ruler but could not say how he would consolidate his position.

"This is not the way to come to power, with weapons in your hands," said Mr Bakiyev. "Who comes to power like that? This was an armed coup, and there were no reasons for it to happen.

"At the moment I can't go to Bishkek because the so-called new government can't guarantee my security. They can't even guarantee the security of ordinary people. This madness, violence and bacchanalia must be stopped."

Mr Bakiyev was dismissed as irrelevant by the cabal of opposition politicians that has taken power in Bishkek, who charge that he presided over an authoritarian regime. "His business in Kyrgyzstan is finished," said Roza Otunbayeva, an opposition leader who said she would head an interim government that will rule for six months until new elections are held. State television and the army appeared to be under the control of the opposition coalition.

The situation was also presenting new difficulties for Russia and the US, both of which have military bases in the country. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin spoke to Ms Otunbayeva by telephone yesterday, and his spokesman later said that Moscow now views Ms Otunbayeva's government as the legitimate rulers of Kyrgyzstan. Russia sent paratroopers to its air base in the country, saying their role would be to protect "the families of Russian citizens" and Russian facilities. Separately, a top Russian official told reporters on the sidelines of a conference between Russian and US presidents in Prague that the US base in Kyrgyzstan must close. The base is a key link in the supply chain for US forces based in nearby Afghanistan. Flights were at least temporarily halted there last night, while US troops were confined to base.

Residents of Bishkek awoke yesterday to a city in ruins, with government buildings torched and dozens of shops vandalised and looted. Although the violence had abated, gunfire could still be heard in the city. The police, many of whom were attacked during the violence, were nowhere to be seen.

"The police are all in hiding. They have all run away. They know if they are found, people will beat them up," said one middle-aged man. Mobs of youths roamed the streets, many drunk and armed with weapons seized from police in Wednesday's clashes. "Look at these young guys. There are a lot of problems, this is a dangerous situation."

Meanwhile, Ms Otunbayeva thanked Russia for its support. "We are grateful to the Russian Federation, grateful to the Russian Prime Minister, for the support in recent days in exposing this nepotistic, criminal regime," Ms Otumbayeva told Russia's Ekho Moskvy radio station. The opposition has accused Mr Bakiyev of authoritarian rule and human rights abuses, and was angry he had given his two sons powerful positions in the government. Ms Otunbayeva said recognition from Mr Putin was significant. "The fact that he called, spoke nicely, went into the detail, asked about details – generally, I was moved by that. It is a signal." She said one of the opposition leaders would be travelling to Moscow shortly for consultations.

Mr Putin has denied Russian involvement in the planning or execution of the street protests. But Reuters quoted an anonymous official in the new regime thanking Moscow for its help in ousting Mr Bakiyev, adding that only Russia should be allowed to maintain an airbase on Krygyz territory.

Mr Bakiyev told The Independent he had proof the protests had been coordinated from abroad. "Look at what happened – so many people on the streets. So well prepared and so well coordinated. This is not spontaneous. This was a provocation organised from the outside," he said, but refused to name the country he thought was behind the protests.

Some Bishkek residents tied pieces of ripped white sheets to their arms and formed brigades to prevent looting. But the return of gunfire as night fell suggested that the city is still some distance from normal life.

Additional reporting from Bishkek by Joanna Lillis

In control: The rise of Roza Otunbayeva

Roza Otunbayeva, the self-styled new president of Kyrgyzstan, seems an unlikely figurehead for a revolution. But while she may lack the charisma of a career politician, she is articulate, and perhaps most importantly has a reputation for being whiter than white, in a region where politicians are notorious for their corruption and nepotism.

Fluent in English, German and French as well as Kyrgyz and Russian, she has been Kyrgyzstan's ambassador to both the US and the UK. She served as foreign minister under both Kurmanbek Bakiyev and Askar Akayev, the former president who was swept aside by Mr Bakiyev in the "Tulip Revolution".

She ended up in opposition to both leaders, one of the reasons she has retained a reputation as a woman of principle. Seen as a moderate liberal, she has emerged as the leader of the coalition of opposition politicians that have called for an end to Mr Bakiyev's rule.

Despite her language skills and experience working as a diplomat in the West, Ms Otunbayeva is also seen as close to Russia, which will help her as she attempts to steer a delicate course between Moscow, Beijing and Washington in her foreign policy. Enjoying great popularity among ordinary Kyrgyz, she will be a strong favourite if she stands in presidential elections that her coalition has promised to call six months from now.