Kyrgyzstan buries its dead, US halts troop flights

Kyrgyzstan on Saturday buried several of those killed in the overthrow of the government, while security concerns prompted the US military to halt troop flights from its base in the Central Asian state. About 3 000 mourners gathered on the edge of the Kyrgyz capital at a mass funeral to commemorate at least 78 people who died in protests on Wednesday, during which government troops opened fire on demonstrators outside the presidential building. “Those who died on April 7 are the heroes of Kyrgyzstan,” Roza Otunbayeva, head of the interim government, told the crowd.

“It was our duty to establish justice. Those who are being buried here today are all our children, the children of Kyrgyzstan.”

Mourners carried coffins draped in the red-and-yellow Kyrgyz national flag and clutched portraits of the dead at a memorial complex built in honour of the victims of mass executions ordered by Soviet leader Josef Stalin in the 1930s.

Relatives lowered bodies into 16 graves lined in rows and joined hands in prayer, while mullahs chanted in Arabic.

Mourners showed little sympathy for the president. Kuat Niyazbekov, attending the funeral on Saturday, said his brother had died in the uprising.

“We don’t even know what really happened on the square, what his last minutes of life were like,” he said. “We can’t forgive a president like that.”

The uprising in Kyrgyzstan, where a third of the 5,3-million population lives below the poverty line, forced the president to retreat to his stronghold in the south of the country and has raised doubts over the future of the US air base near Bishkek. All flights carrying troops from the Manas base, a vital cog in supplying Nato operations in Afghanistan, were suspended from Friday evening, a spokesperson for the base said. Troops are using alternative routes in and out of Afghanistan.

“While normal flight operations at Manas were resumed on Friday, a decision was taken Friday evening to temporarily divert military passenger transport flights,” the base’s spokesperson, Rickardo Bodden, told Reuters by telephone.

His comments confirmed those of the US military’s Central Command on Friday. Another US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was a security-related decision made by the base commander on the ground.

Central to war effort
Pentagon officials say Manas is central to the war effort against the Taliban, allowing around-the-clock flights in and out of neighbouring Afghanistan. About 50 000 troops passed through last month alone.

Members of Kyrgyzstan’s self-proclaimed new leadership have said the US lease on the base could be shortened.

Russia, the first country to recognise the new Kyrgyz leadership, also has an air base in the country. A Russian official, who declined to be named, said on Thursday that the strategically important country should have only a Russian base.

Bodden declined to say when passenger flights would resume or to reveal the alternative route being used. He said the base was still conducting fuelling, cargo and humanitarian flights.

“The transition centre at Manas is conducting other flight operations on a limited basis and continues to support operations in Afghanistan,” he said.

President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who has refused to step down, remains in southern Kyrgyzstan. Otunbayeva, a one-time ally who helped Bakiyev to power in the 2005 “Tulip Revolution”, offered him safe passage out of Kyrgyzstan should he step down.

Omurbek Tekebayev, a former opposition leader now in the provisional government, told the crowd: “Our people defeated the dictator.”

Otunbayeva has also accused Bakiyev’s supporters of stoking a violent response to the uprising. In the southern Kyrgyz city of Jalalabad, about 200 of his supporters gathered near a billboard picturing a smiling Bakiyev shaking hands with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

A crowd of 5 000 ethnic Uzbeks, who comprise a large part of the population in southwest Kyrgyzstan, rallied several kilometres away, saying they supported Kyrgyz unity and opposed any attempt to divide the north and south of the country. – Reuters

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