Kyrgyz opposition seizes power and dissolves parliament

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Kyrgyzstan's opposition said today it had taken power and dissolved parliament in the poor but strategically important Central Asian state after deadly protests forced President Kurmanbek Bakiyev to flee the capital.

As interim government leader, Roza Otunbayeva demanded the resignation of the president, whom she helped bring to power five years ago. She said Bakiyev was trying to rally supporters in his power base in southern Kyrgyzstan.

"We have a caretaker government now in place, and I am the head of it," Otunbayeva, a former foreign minister, told Reuters several hours before addressing reporters in the parliament building in Bishkek.

"It will remain in place for half a year, during which we will draft the constitution and create conditions for free and fair (presidential) elections."

The uprising, which spread to Bishkek yesterday a day after starting in a provincial town, was sparked by discontent over corruption, nepotism and rising prices in a nation where a third of the 5.3 million population live below the poverty line.

The United States has a military air base supporting troops in Afghanistan in the Kyrgyz city of Manas and is a major donor to Kyrgyzstan, along with China and Russia, which also has military base in the former Soviet state.

Bakiyev fled Bishkek to southern Kyrgyzstan, his traditional power base in a nation split by clan rivalries. A witness said he arrived late yesterday at the airport in Osh, and Otunbayeva said later he was in his home region of Jalalabad.

She said the entire country was under the control of the interim government, except for Osh and Jalalabad. Armed forces and border guards supported the new government, she said.

Spokesmen for the president were not available for comment.

In the centre of Osh, hundreds of Bakiyev's supporters scuffled with opponents of his regime, a Reuters reporter said. Opponents of Bakiyev took control of the government building.

At least 68 people died in the capital, many of gunshot wounds. Protesters stormed the government building that Bakiyev left behind, smashing trucks through the perimeter fencing.

A Reuters reporter inside the building saw demonstrators walking over broken glass and smashed computers and sending papers cascading from windows. The seventh floor, where the president keeps his office, was badly charred.

"The whole country is on fire," said Nurlan Aslybekov, an unemployed man who travelled to Bishkek from the town of Talas, where the first anti-government protests broke out on Tuesday.

In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said operations at the Manas base - visited by US Central Command chief General David Petraeus last month - appeared unaffected.

Bakiyev came to power in the 2005 "Tulip Revolution" protests, led jointly by Otunbayeva, which ousted Kyrgyzstan's first post-Soviet president, Askar Akayev. She briefly served as acting foreign minister before falling out with Bakiyev.

The opposition said at least 100 people had been killed yesterday. The Health Ministry put the death toll in Bishkek at 68 dead, and said 520 people had been injured.

The violence was the deadliest in ex-Soviet Central Asia since government forces in Uzbekistan fired on protesters in the city of Andizhan in May 2005. The Uzbek government said 187 people died, including its forces, but rights groups say several hundred mostly unarmed protesters were killed.

Political unrest over poverty, rising prices and corruption has gripped Kyrgyzstan since early March. The average monthly wage is about $130 and remittances from workers in Russia have fallen sharply during the global economic crisis.

"It was a never ending rip-off. Every day they would raise prices for gas, for water, and in the end is it good to shoot at your own people?" said Alioglu Samedov, 62, a retired lawyer.

Analysts said the unrest would also increase uncertainty for foreign investors in Kyrgyzstan's mining sector and raised the possibility of outside military intervention.

"Bakiyev is unlikely to return to power but the prevailing uncertainty poses severe risks to foreign investors, raises the possibility of foreign intervention and will directly affect US interests in Central Asia," said Eurasia Group analyst Ana Jelenkovic said.

Shops were still ablaze after a night of looting in central Bishkek. People ran through the streets carrying computers and office equipment, and protesters spat at a portrait of Bakiyev on a large carpet carried out of the government building.

The foreign ministry in China, which shares a border with Kyrgyzstan, said it was "deeply concerned" about the unrest.

"Kyrgyzstan's situation returning to normal as soon as possible is in the interest of the Kyrgyz people, as well as in the interest of regional peace and stability," spokeswoman Jiang Yu said in a statement on the ministry website

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin earlier called for calm and denied Moscow had played a hand in the clashes.