Kyrgyzstani police on Thursday arrested three members of parliament who had led a crowd that tried to storm government headquarters in a protest over a Canadian-owned gold mine, Centerra Gold.
Wednesday’s clashes between police and supporters of the opposition Ata Zhurt party in the former Soviet republic were the most violent in the capital, Bishkek, since the April, 2010, revolt that ousted then-president Kurmanbek Bakiyev.
The protesters want the mine, crucial to Kyrgyzstan’s fragile economy, to be nationalized.
The three parliamentarians – Kamchibek Tashiyev, Sadyr Zhaparov and Talant Mamytov – are being held on suspicion of trying to seize power. Prosecutors have 48 hours to decide whether to charge them.
On Thursday, about 1,000 supporters rallied in the main square of the southern city of Jalalabad, their power base, to demand their release. There was no violence.
“Parliament, the President, the government should resign because they are not resolving the Kumtor issue,” one demonstrator shouted through a megaphone.
The attempted storming of Kyrgyzstan’s “White House” rekindled north-south tension in the Central Asian country of 5 1/2 million people, which borders China and has U.S. and Russian military air bases.
Two presidents of Kyrgyzstan have been toppled since 2005 after attacks on the same government building. Though Bishkek was quiet on Thursday, authorities were alert for protests spreading in the country’s poorer, more nationalist south.
Russia voiced concern about the unrest in Kyrgyzstan, its partner in a regional security alliance, saying grievances should not be resolved by force. It said unspecified measures had been taken to ensure the security of its diplomats.
“Proceeding from our interest in the preservation of political stability in this friendly country, we consider it important for all issues … to be resolved within the law,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said.
Wednesday’s protest began as a peaceful rally in favour of nationalizing the Kumtor mine, owned by Canada’s Centerra Gold. The Kyrgyzstani state itself is a 33-per-cent shareholder in Centerra under a Bakiyev-era contract drawn up in 2009.
Calls to nationalize Kumtor, the largest gold mine operated in Central Asia by a Western-based concern, risk scaring off potential investors needed to revive a shrinking economy.
Prime Minister Zhantoro Satybaldiyev, appointed last month, needs foreign cash to make good on pledges to alleviate poverty and achieve economic growth. Per capita GDP in Kyrgyzstan is less than a tenth of that in its oil-rich neighbour, Kazakhstan.
Mr. Satybaldiyev visited the Kumtor mine on Monday and gave assurances the venture would not be nationalized.
Centerra also says it is confident the issues will be resolved around Kumtor, pointing at 15 years of production that have never been disrupted due to political unrest.
The fact that the Kyrgyzstani government owns 33 per cent of the company and holds two board seats might also work in the company’s favour.
“They are our largest shareholder and they see the economic benefits of the mine operating in the country,” Centerra spokesman John Pearson told The Globe and Mail, pointing out also that the Toronto-based miner is Kyrgyzstan’s top taxpayer and source of 12 per cent of the GDP.
One of the arrested parliamentarians, Mr. Tashiyev, finished third in an October, 2011, presidential election, winning 14 per cent of the vote. He had urged the crowd to follow him during the clashes with riot police on Wednesday.
Ata Zhurt party spokesman Nurgazy Anarkulov said he believed the detentions were politically motivated and called for mass protests in the south.
“They are true patriots fighting for the interests of the people and for Kyrgyzstan’s future,” he told a news conference in Bishkek. “We believe the arrest of our leaders is political persecution.”
Turdimamat Mamytov, father of one of the three arrested men, demanded the release of his son and criticized President Almazbek Atambayev, who has deepened already close ties with Russia since assuming the presidency in December.
“Such a President should not be in power,” Mr. Mamytov said.
With a report from Pav Jordan