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Updated: April 8, 2010 19:00 IST

Kyrgyz forms interim govt. backed by the army

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Kyrgyz protesters waving the national flag, ride on a truck in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on Wednesday. Kyrgyzstan’s opposition has taken over the government headquarters on Thursday.
Kyrgyz protesters waving the national flag, ride on a truck in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on Wednesday. Kyrgyzstan’s opposition has taken over the government headquarters on Thursday.

An opposition coalition proclaimed a new interim government on Thursday in Kyrgyzstan and said it would rule until elections are held in six months. It urged the president to resign and said there were no immediate plans to change the U.S. lease for a strategic airfield.

The new interim defence minister said the armed forces have joined the opposition and will not be used against protesters.

China on Thursday said it was “deeply concerned” about the violent uprising in its small western neighbour, echoing comments by Russia and the United States. The impoverished Central Asian nation hosts the Manas U.S. military air base, a key facility supporting the war in Afghanistan, and also hosts a Russian military base.

Opposition leader Roza Otunbayeva, the former foreign minister, said parliament was dissolved and she would head the interim government. She said the new government controlled four of the seven provinces and called on President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who has fled the capital of Bishkek, to resign.

“His business in Kyrgyzstan is finished,” she said.

Although the opposition has previously voiced objection to Manas, Ms. Otunbayeva said there were no plans yet to review the current one-year lease agreement with the United States. She said her government would meet U.S. diplomats for talks in Bishkek.

“Give us time, it will take time for us to understand and fix the situation,” Ms. Otunbayeva said.

Kyrgyzstan, which shares a 533-mile (858-kilometer) border with China, is also a gateway to other energy-rich Central Asian countries where China, Russia and the U.S. are competing fiercely for dominance. It is a predominantly Muslim country, but it has remained secular.

The U.S. Embassy denied reports in the Kyrgyz media that U.S. citizens were being evacuated to the Manas air force base, where about 1,200 U.S. troops are stationed. Americans in civilian clothing were seen entering the base on Thursday morning.

Russia sent in 150 paratroopers to its base to ensure the safety of the 400 military personnel and their families there, Russian state media reported.

By Thursday afternoon, there was no sign of Mr. Bakiyev. Ms. Otunbayeva said he had fled to the central region of Jalal-Abad, the heart of his political stronghold, to seek support. This raised some concerns that Mr. Bakiyev could try to exploit the country’s traditional north-south split to secure his own survival.

Thousands of protesters have clashed with security forces throughout the country in the last two days, driving out local governments and seizing government headquarters in Bishkek. Elite riot police shot into crowds of protesters in Bishkek on Wednesday and hospitals were overwhelmed with the dead and wounded.

The country’s new defence chief, however, said on Thursday that the nation’s 5-million people now have nothing to fear from the security forces.

“Special forces and the military were used against civilians in Bishkek, Talas and other places,” Ismail Isakov said. “This will not happen in the future.”

In Bishkek, residents nervously went about their business on a clear spring morning on Thursday, the snow-capped mountains visible in the distance. There were no police on the streets.

Most of the government buildings in the capital, as well as Mr. Bakiyev’s houses, have been looted or set on fire and two major markets were burned down. A paper portrait of Mr. Bakiyev at government headquarters was smeared with red paint. Obscenities about him were spray-painted on buildings nearby.

Ms. Otunbayeva blamed Mr. Bakiyev for the week’s violent clashes.

“Yesterday’s events were a response to aggression, tyranny and a crackdown on dissenters,” she said. “All the people who were killed and wounded are victims of this regime.”

The Health Ministry said at least 74 people were killed and 400 people hospitalized in clashes nationwide on Wednesday.

Almaz Bakibayev, a 30-year-old cook who was among the wounded, said the bloodshed would be worthwhile if it brought in a better government.

“The blood was not shed in vain,” he said at Bishkek’s Hospital No. 4. “What I can’t understand is why they started shooting at people.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for calm and said he would immediately send an envoy to Kyrgyzstan, which he had criticized in a visit Saturday for its human rights violations.

“I could feel the tension in the air,” he said Thursday in Vienna. “The pressure has been building for months.”

Since coming to power in 2005 amid street protests known as the Tulip Revolution, Mr. Bakiyev had ensured a measure of stability, but the opposition said he did so at the expense of democratic standards while enriching himself and his family.

He gave his relatives, including his son, top government and economic posts and faced the same accusations of corruption and cronyism that led to the ouster of his predecessor, Askar Akayev.

The interim government brings together a wide spectrum of opposition leaders whose differences have undermined them in the past.

One area of consensus was on the decision to repeal the recent sharp increases to utility taxes that provoked widespread anger. Beyond that, the new team of ministers - who range from the socialist Ata-Meken party leader Omurmbek Tekebayev, whose portfolio will include drawing up proposed constitution reforms, to the technocratic interim Finance Minister Temir Sariyev - may have trouble forging a united platform.

“We have kicked out Mr. Bakiyev, the people have taken power into their own hands, but we have no plans for the future,” said Abdykerim Sadykov, a 42-year-old teacher, as he stood with thousands of others outside the ransacked government headquarters.

“We will wait until the opposition hatches a plan,” he said.

In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the U.S. deplored the violence and urged all to respect the rule of law.

U.S. military officials said Kyrgyzstan halted flights for 12 hours Wednesday at the Manas air base during the uprising, and were evasive on Thursday when asked if flights had resumed.

“(We at) Manas have taken all appropriate measures to continue to support operations in Afghanistan,” U.S. Air Force Maj. Rickardo Bodden, a public affairs officer, said on Thursday. He refused to elaborate for security reasons.

In 2009, Kyrgyzstan said U.S. forces would have to leave Manas, a decision made shortly after Russia granted Kyrgyzstan more than $2 billion in aid and loans. The government later reversed its stance and agreed to a one—year deal with the U.S. that raised the rent to about $63 million a year from $17 million.

The U.S. is also paying $37 million for airport improvements, another $30 million for new navigation systems, and giving the government $51.5 million to combat drug trafficking and terrorism and promote economic development.

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