Kyrgyzstan: The day the tulip revolution came

Yesterday morning, President Askar Akayev ruled Kyrgyzstan, and vowed to see down protesters. But by mid-afternoon he had fled the country, report Jessicah Curtis in Bishkek and Andrew Osborn
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The Independent Online

Shattered glass and smashed paving stones littered the floor, furniture and portraits of the ousted president were hurled from the windows, and the young men who stormed the presidential palace staggered, bewildered and bloodied, back into the daylight, having toppled the government of Kyrgyzstan.

The scene on the street was no less vivid. Protesters on horseback raced through the central square trailing bright yellow and pink flags in their wake as a Greek-style statue of a woman representing freedom looked on. A few years earlier a statue of Vladimir Lenin had occupied the same spot.

Outside the government compound the police, who had earlier locked their riot shields in desperation as it rained paving stones, were nowhere to be seen.

Inside, sitting in the presidential chair of Askar Akayev - whose rule had sparked the day's fury - sat the opposition activist Ulan Shambetov. "It's not the opposition that has seized power," he said. "It's the people who have taken power.

"The people," he repeated. "They have been fighting for so long against corruption, against that [Akayev] family."

Tensions boiled over after protesters across the former Soviet republic demanded Mr Akayev's resignation, following parliamentary elections which took place last month that were labelled a sham by the fragmented opposition.

Mr Akayev's cronies won all but six of the parliament's 75 seats and, to the opposition's disgust, his son and daughter were also elected while key opposition politicians were banned from running. Crushing poverty and massive unemployment in this small Central Asian state of five million people have fuelled unrest, as have the actions of Mr Akayev which are perceived to have become increasingly dictatorial, corrupt and authoritarian.

Yesterday the people of Kyrgyzstan decided that they had had enough. More than 30,000 people, energetically waving banners and chanting noisily, descended on the main square of the capital, Bishkek chanting: "Down with Akayev!" and "Akayev's family: Your time is over!" Opposition groups staged protests on the edge of the city yesterday morning before marching on the centre where they were met by riot police.

Violence erupted at about 2pm when about 40 protesters from Osh, a city in the south which was occupied by the opposition on Monday, joined the main group. They were attacked with sticks and stones by a group of Mr Akayev's supporters in civilian clothing and wearing blue armbands. The response was immediate and fierce and the "provocateurs" were swiftly overwhelmed. Witnesses said that four of their number were dragged from the square, their bodies limp and apparently lifeless. After that there was no stopping the protests.

Paving stones were ripped up and hurled at police. Security forces reacted, charging the square from the parliament grounds, only to be forced back. Opposition leaders struggled to control the crowd as angry young men, many wearing yellow bandannas, a sign of what has come to be known as the tulip revolution, thrust forward.

Shortly before 3pm, mounted police made a last-ditch attempt to control the situation, crashing through the crowds only to have one of their horses stolen by a protester. As security forces ran for cover, many were left bloodied and bruised.

Minutes later, protesters forced their way through a gate on the south-eastern side of the White House compound, where they met government militia armed with wooden sticks, along with Abdygul Chotbaev, the commander of the National Guard.

General Chotbaev attempted to negotiate with the protesters, but failed and was badly beaten up along with Bolot Januzakov, the deputy head of the presidential administration.

The crowds then stormed through the grounds. Militia fled in their wake and the crowds barged their way into the building, smashing windows and forcing the doors, while police tried in vain to hold them back with fire hoses.

The crowd on the street cheered as demonstrators made their way through the building, smashing windows. Government papers, furniture and electrical appliances were hurled out of the building in a show of defiance.

One government aide told reporters that Mr Akayev had already left the building for an undisclosed address. "I don't know where he and the prime minister are now," he said. When protesters reached Mr Akayev's seventh-floor office, they argued with security personnel before pushing their way inside, where they stole electrical appliances, stamping on photos of Mr Akayev and drinking his expensive vodka. The president's kitchen was raided while several protesters stole his formal robes, posing for photographs intermittently. Other protesters broke into a private sitting room and watched the protests on international television news.

Later demonstrators began to discourage the crowd's pillaging, some ordering protesters to go back outside.

At 3.40pm, Kurmanbek Bakiev, an opposition leader, arrived in Mr Akayev's office where he told onlookers: "I did not expect this, I thought we would have a rally and would appeal to the president.

"Because they did not come to negotiations this was the result."

Mr Bakiev said the crowd needed to be patient and asked protesters to leave the building and remain calm. Once outside, Mr Bakiev addressed the crowds, who chanted his name. He said that the power of the Kyrgyz government "was now in the hands of the Kyrgyz people."

By the time protests began to calm down, there was no sign of the police. Mr Bakiev told protesters that militia loyal to the opposition would guard the building overnight. The protesters' mood was further buoyed by the release from prison of prominent anti-Akayev figure, Felix Kulov, who had been jailed in 2000 on what he claims were trumped up embezzlement charges.

An opposition deputy, Ishinbai Kadyrbekov was later voted in as interim president in an emergency meeting of parliament.

By about 5pm, the crowds appeared to have calmed down but by nightfall the situation worsened again as looters started to run riot along the main street, Chui Prospekt, targeting department stores including Silkway, which is owned by the President's son Aidar, a newly elected member of parliament.

As merchandise disappeared into the night, rumours spread that Mr Akayev had fled to neighbouring Kazakhstan while his children, all prominent business owners and politicians, were believed to have fled to the same country in a helicopter earlier in the day.

Kyrgyzstan, which is a strategically important country where the drug trade mingles with America's fight against terrorism and Russia's attempt to retain some influence in an area it regards as its backyard, had enjoyed a revolution. Perhaps one of the quickest on record.

WHO ARE THE KYRGYZ?

The most excitement central Bishkek usually sees is a game of ulak tartysh , a form of polo with a goat carcass for a "ball" that reveals the nomadic traditions of a proud mountain people.

Immediately identifiable by their white, yurt-like hats, one translation of "Kyrgyz" is "indestructible", for about 93 per cent of Kyrgyzstan's territory comprises the lofty mountains of the Tian Shan (the Heavenly Mountains) and Altai ranges. The Kyrgyz know them as the "Wings of the Earth", a remote refuge from countless invasions.

The group's origins lie along the Yenisei river in southern Siberia. After failing under Turkic and Mongol suzerainty, the Kyrgyz became a distinct people by the 16th century. Yet even by the 20th century little was known of them.

Fierce resistance to the First World War draft and later collectivisation brought repression, but industrialisation and Russification has missed most of the Kyrgyz's beautiful homeland. The oral epic Manas , traditional sports such as falconry, eagle-hunting and ulak tartysh remain important symbols.

The Kyrgyz account for 66 per cent of the republic's 5.2 million population, with Russians 11 per cent and Uzbeks14 per cent. Population density is just 25 per square kilometre.

The Kyrgyz speak a Turkic language and are Sunni Muslims, but as nomads usually packed only as much religion as their saddle-bags would carry, their communities are not a natural breeding-ground for the more fundamentalist sects of Islam that have spread in the Uzbek cities of the Ferghana Valley.

Calum MacLeod

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