The Kyrgyzstan government declared a nationwide state of emergency after clashes between security forces and opposition protesters which left at least twelve dead and scores injured.
Opposition protestors on Wednesday stormed the Kyrgyz television centre, forcing all the channels off the air as riots sweep through the capital Bishkek.
Thousands of angry demonstrators surrounded the offices of strongman President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in the capital Bishkek. The opposition accuses the government of rights violations, authoritarianism and economic mismanagement.
Riot police fired tear gas and stun grenades in repeated efforts to disperse the protestors, but then retreated to the grounds of the president’s offices as demonstrators tried to ram the gates with an armoured vehicle.
Weapon fire, grenades
Prime Minister Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov announced the state of emergency as the troubles grew.
Explosions from stun grenades reverberated across the city and the crackle of automatic weapons fire filled the air as protestors in Bishkek’s main square gasped for breath in a fog of tear gas.
AFP reporters saw six bodies being carried out of the square near the presidential administration but could not immediately confirm whether they were dead. Russian news agencies reported at least two dead and more than 90 injured.
The death toll has since been revised up to twelve.
Amid appeals for calm from Russia, authorities in the ex-Soviet republic said three opposition leaders had been arrested for perpetrating “serious crimes”.
US expresses ‘deep concern’
The United States, which maintains an air base in Kyrgyzstan used in the NATO campaign in nearby Afghanistan also voiced “deep concern” at the unrest.
Between 3,000 and 5,000 protestors overturned cars and set them on fire as they marched from the opposition headquarters towards the presidential offices, witnesses said.
Protestors appeared to have seized several heavily armoured police vehicles and were standing atop them waving red Kyrgyz flags and the blue flag of the opposition movement.
The violence came a day after more than 1,000 opposition protesters burst through police lines and took control of government offices in the remote northwest town of Talas.
Witnesses said police in Talas fired warning shots into the air but the crowds overran security forces as the main United Opposition Movement vowed to stage nationwide protests.
In the central city of Naryn, hundreds of opposition protesters on Wednesday stormed the regional government headquarters after the local governor refused to negotiate, local witnesses told AFP.
Adilet Ishenov, a human rights activist in Naryn, described the crowds at the government offices there as “aggressive”. His account of events was supported by a local state media journalist, contacted by AFP by phone.
Witnesses in the city of Tokmak, just outside the capital, said around 2,000 demonstrators had gathered there. Residents in three regions near the southern town of Osh also told of protests in the streets.
Kyrgyzstan, a mountainous country perched at the strategic junction between China, Russia and southwest Asia, is among the poorest countries to have emerged from the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.
It has been plagued by corruption and chronic instability and the troubles resemble widespread unrest that washed over the country in March 2005 and resulted in the ouster of President Askar Akayev.
Opposition leaders accuse the Bakiyev government of basic rights violations, authoritarianism and arbitrary economic management that has resulted in sharply higher prices for basic goods and services.
As the unrest unfolded, Kyrgyzstan’s prosecutor general Nurlan Tursunkulov announced police had arrested former prime minister and presidential candidate Almazbek Atambayev, ex-parliament speaker Omurbek Tekebayev and his aide Bolot Cherniazov.
Bakiyev’s government vowed on Tuesday to “severely” crush the opposition protests.
As the demonstrations appeared to gather momentum, Russia called for Kyrgyzstan not to use force against the protesters.
Kyrgyzstan strategically important
“We consistently stand for all disagreements — political, economic and social — to be solved within the framework of the democratic procedures that exist in Kyrgyzstan, without the use of force and harm to the Kyrgyz citizens,” deputy foreign minister Grigory Karasin told the Interfax news agency.
The United States has an airbase at Manas that has become a pivotal staging ground for the battle against the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.
In a statement on Tuesday, the US embassy in Bishkek said it was “deeply concerned” about the unrest in Talas and urged “all parties to show respect for the rule of law and … to engage in talks to resolve differences”.