President flees chaos in Kyrgyz capital

Kyrgyzstan President Askar Akayev and his family have left the country, reported Russian news agency Interfax on Thursday amid conflicting reports on the whereabouts of the Central Asian nation’s veteran leader.

Citing unnamed sources in the interior ministry, the news agency said that a helicopter with Akayev presumably on board has left for Russia, while another, carrying his family, left for neighbouring Kazakhstan.

The whereabouts of Akayev — who has ruled this normally sleepy mountainous nation since 1990 and is considered the most liberal ruler in ex-Soviet Central Asia — have been unknown since thousands of opposition supporters armed with rocks and clubs took over Kyrgyzstan’s main seat of power.

Kyrgyz protesters storm government compound

Kyrgyz protesters stormed the main government compound in the capital, Bishkek, on Thursday and released the country’s opposition leader from jail. In their first major rally in the capital, about 1 000 protesters, angry at what they claim were fraudulent elections earlier this month, drove riot police from their positions protecting the government headquarters. Some demonstrators were able to get inside the compound. Others smashed windows with stones, while hundreds of police stood by and watched.

Protesters marched the defence minister, Esen Topoyev, out of the building, holding him by the elbows. They tried to protect him, but he was hit by stones thrown by the crowd, and one protester kicked him. Interior ministry troops led other officials out by a side door. Three injured people with bandages covering their wounds left accompanied by a doctor.

Two demonstrators waved a flag from a top-floor window in the building and others hurled furniture out of the building as cheers erupted from demonstrators below.

Elsewhere in the city, opposition leader and former vice-president Felix Kulov was freed from jail, Interfax reported.

”We have freed Kulov. We are already in Bishkek. He will soon speak on television,” Kulov aide Emil Aliyev told Reuters by telephone.

Kulov was jailed for theft and abuse of power in 2001, in what his supporters said was a ploy by Akayev to neutralise the influence of his main rival.

Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who is emerging as another key opposition figure, was at the government compound with the protesters, many of whom wore pink and yellow headbands and carried the national flag.

”The people of Kyrgyzstan will not let anybody torment them,” Bakiyev, who heads the People’s Movement, told the crowd at the earlier rally. ”We must show persistence and strength, and we will win.”

A Reuters correspondent had earlier reported hearing several gunshots as fighting broke out between opposition protesters and supporters of Akayev. An estimated 10 000 protesters were on the streets of the capital.

”I am very happy, because for 15 years we’ve been seeing the same ugly face shamelessly smiling at us,” said 35-year-old protester Abdikasim Kamalov, waving a red Kyrgyz flag. ”We could no longer tolerate this. We want changes.”

”It’s the victory of the people. But now we don’t know how to stop these young guys,” said Noman Akabayev, an unsuccessful election candidate.

The demonstrators were protesting over the outcome of parliamentary elections held on February 27 and March 13, which handed Akayev overwhelming control of parliament. International observers said the electoral process was flawed.

The protesters, who have already taken control of Kyrgyzstan’s second city, Osh, and the town of Jalal-Abad in the south of the country, want the president to annul the results and rerun the election.

The president has offered an investigation into the results in some disputed districts, and the government made another attempt to placate the opposition today with the resignation of Osmonakun Ibraimov, Akayev’s chief ideologist and a hate figure for the opposition.

The president had been due to meet a representative from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which condemned the elections and has offered to mediate in ensuing crisis.

Earlier on Thursday, the newly-appointed interior minister, Keneshbek Dushebayev, appealed to protesters to obey the law.

”We ask [the protesters] not to destroy, not to loot, not to storm state buildings and shops. I will never give an order to use arms against peaceable people,” he told reporters.

Dushebayev, a former police chief, said he had also heard that some police had defected to the opposition.

Comparisons have been made with the political upheaval in other former Soviet states in recent years. But unlike Ukraine and Georgia, where the opposition swept to power after disputed elections, there is no obvious opposition leader in Kyrgyzstan.

The country of five-million people borders China in an energy-rich region where Washington and Moscow vie for influence. Both powers have military bases outside the capital. – Sapa-AFP, Guardian Unlimited Â

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