Kyrgyz president flees country after protests

 

KYRGYZSTAN: President Askar Akayev has fled Kyrgyzstan after thousands of protesters, complaining about rigged elections, poverty and corruption, overwhelmed feeble pro-government forces and seized control of the capital, Bishkek.

Mr Akayev (60) was last night reported to be in either neighbouring Kazakhstan or in Russia, where - having seen pro-Western opposition movements triumph in Georgia and Ukraine - officials voiced grave concern over events in Kyrgyzstan. It had been considered one former Soviet Central Asia's most stable countries.

There were suggestions last night that the prime minister Nikolai Tanayev had also fled.

Parliament appointed an opposition deputy as acting president last night and told opposition groups to present candidates for government. "We decided to request that the co-ordination council of the opposition forces work out and present by 10am tomorrow [ Friday] candidates for the new government of Kyrgyzstan," outgoing parliamentary speaker Abdygany Erkebayev said.

Officials and security forces seemed to be caught off guard by the sudden appearance of some 10,000 protesters in central Bishkek, after a week of protests had been isolated in the southern cities of Osh and Jalal Abad.

With breathtaking speed, riot police melted away before a gathering mob which, wielding sticks and hurling rocks, quickly flung open the doors of government headquarters and rushed inside.

There were reports last night that looters were ransacking shops in Bishkek, robbing goods from department stores and torching buildings.

Rumours of Mr Akayev's escape gained credibility as state television, which was also swiftly overrun, showed protesters laughing and cheering as they sat in the president's chair and waved the Kyrgyz flag in triumph.

As police fled before the swelling crowd, television pictures showed several people being carried away through Bishkek's main square, bleeding and apparently unconscious. At least 30 people were reported to have been injured in the clashes.

The revolt gained even more momentum when the constitutional court annulled the results of recent elections which had sidelined opposition figures while strengthening the hand of Mr Akayev's supporters in parliament.

His critics cried fraud after the polls and warned that Mr Akayev would change the constitution to allow him to stand in presidential elections this autumn.

In power since 1990, the trained physicist was constitutionally obliged to step down this year but, having once been feted as Central Asia's democratic champion, he became increasingly autocratic to subdue growing resistance to his political stranglehold.

"Our nation has suffered incredibly," said Talant Kushpakov (30). "The people and I myself are ready to cut Akayev's throat with our own teeth. If he doesn't step down we will topple him by force."

Abdikasim Kamalov (35), holding a red Kyrgyz flag outside the government building, agreed.

"I am very happy because for 15 years we've been seeing the same ugly face shamelessly smiling at us. We could no longer tolerate this. We want changes."

As apparent chaos reigned in Bishkek and Mr Akayev's erstwhile allies in politics and the security services fell silent, world powers joined most Kyrgyz in wondering who would step forward to lead a strategically important country which hosts US and Russian military bases, neighbours China and is a short hop from Afghanistan.

Many demonstrators wore pink and yellow scarves - reminiscent of the orange worn recently by Ukraine's opposition protesters - but the crowds in Bishkek showed none of the discipline or allegiance to obvious leaders that was shown in Kiev.

Felix Kulov, a former vice-president and interior minister, was freed from jail yesterday and immediately became a potential future leader. He shares that mantle with opposition activists Kurmanbek Bakiyev and Topchubek Turgunaliyev, and a former foreign minister who turned against Mr Akayev, Rosa Otumbayeva.

A spokesman for Mr Bakiev said Mr Tanayev has tendered his resignation. "The president has left in an unknown direction, the prime minister has filed his resignation," said Sergei Benisovich. "That's why Bakiyev has taken full responsibility for anything happening in the republic."

Near the government building, thick smoke billowed from two burning official cars, as opposition activists hailed the unlikely speed and suddenness of their triumph. One protester, Ulan Shambetov, sat in Mr Akayev's office. "It's not the opposition that has seized power, it's the people who have taken power. The people! They have been fighting for so long against corruption, against that family," he said of Mr Akayev and his relatives, who have enjoyed great power for the past 15 years. The president's son and daughter were widely seen as being groomed as his successors.

In Moscow, the revolt was officially frowned upon. "Today we reiterated our serious concerns over the results of attempts to take power by illegal methods," said Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. The Russian chief of the military staff, Gen Yuri Baluyevsky, was more blunt. "I'd like to believe and hope that the actions of a mob high on narcotic substances will not totally destabilise this republic," he said.

The hardline leaders of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan will also not welcome the whiff of unexpected revolt blowing through Central Asia. "This is a popular revolution and the power is in the hands of the people," said Prof Askat Dukenbayev of Bishkek's American University. "Now we don't fear anyone any more."