Massive, violent protests have toppled the authoritarian regime in Kyrgyzstan, an impoverished Central Asian republic wooed by both Moscow and Washington and the site of a sprawling air base vital to the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.
By nightfall, the opposition claimed President Kurmanbek Bakiyev had fled and a new government headed by former foreign minister Rosa Otumbayeva, 59, was in control.
"Power is now in the hands of the people's government,'' a blogger based in the capital, Bishkek, quoted her as saying. "The main thing now is to stabilize the situation in the republic, to safeguard people's lives and to rule out marauding," said Ms. Otumbayeva, who heads a left-wing parliamentary group.
Scores of protesters were reportedly shot and killed by security forces during waves of day-long running battles that left the capital littered with burning vehicles as crowds stormed the main television station and the Interior Ministry. According to witness reports, another leading opposition figure, Keneshbek Duishebayev, was issuing orders for calm from the National Security Agency, the reviled and feared secret police.
After days of mounting violence, Mr. Bakiyev, the increasingly repressive and unpopular Kyrgyzstani leader, reportedly fled Bishkek on the presidential jet and was believed headed for Osh, a city in the Uzbek south of the landlocked former Soviet republic.
The huge and vital Manas air base just outside Bishkek - which serves as a staging point for military aircraft carrying munitions, troops and supplies for the 100,000-strong U.S. and NATO force in Afghanistan - was reportedly operating normally last night. But the fall of the government may put the future of the base in doubt just as the surge of troops ordered by U.S. President Barack Obama for Afghanistan is set to deploy. Most Kyrgyzstani opposition leaders have decried the deal with Washington on Manas and demanded closing the base to the U.S. military.
Last year, Mr. Bakiyev successfully played Moscow and Washington against each other. After extracting a $2-billion (U.S.) aid package from Moscow, he ordered the base closed to U.S. military aircraft. But the Obama administration managed to negotiate continued use of Manas in exchange for a much higher fee - a reported $60-million annually, plus huge payments for fuel and supplies, many of which were funnelled through state-controlled entities run by Mr. Bakiyev's family and friends.
Mr. Bakiyev, who swept to power in 2005 after the so-called Tulip Revolution brought stability to the poor, mostly Muslim nation of five million, has presided over an increasingly repressive regime. A harsh clampdown on the media has been matched by the imprisonment of political opponents, often on trumped-up criminal charges, according to international observers, while a pattern of nepotism has seen his son and other family members named to top government posts. Corruption is endemic, and a recent 200-per-cent increase in electricity rates set off angry protests made all the more volatile by the fact that Mr. Bakiyev's family is widely believed to control the national electrical utility. The country is considered among the most corrupt in the world.
The turmoil in Kyrgyzstan adds to a lengthening crescent of instability that now includes Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, all facing either simmering opposition protests or active insurgencies.
Martha Brill Olcott, a senior associate in the Russian and Eurasian program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, warned nearly two years ago that "turmoil in Central Asia could have deadly consequences in Afghanistan. Regime change in either Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan, for instance, could affect those countries' willingness to host NATO bases. The mere weakening of existing governments would hamper international efforts to stem Afghanistan's drug trade, and could create new safe havens for terrorists.''
The Obama administration was in the midst of finalizing a new deal for Manas when protests erupted in several cities in Kyrgyzstan. "We're very grateful to the Kyrgyz government,'' Richard Holbrooke, Mr. Obama's special envoy to the region, said last month after meeting with President Bakiyev in Bishkek. He said 35,000 U.S. soldiers transit Manas - the only major air base outside Afghanistan available to the U.S. military in all of Central Asia - every month, most of them deploying to or from the war zone or rotating out on leave.
Although Canada uses an air base in Dubai as its main staging point for supplying troops in Afghanistan, the Canadian Forces shipped its tanks to Kandahar via Manas, where they were transferred from commercial transports to military cargo aircraft.
Videos and photographs circulating on the Internet showed wild and bloody scenes of protesters - many unarmed - fighting back after police fired first tear gas, then rubber bullets and finally live rounds into roving crowds attempting to storm government buildings.
Casualty figures were impossible to confirm and varied widely, but most suggested scores of people had been killed and hundreds injured. One graphic witness account detailed an overwhelmed hospital with bodies lying in pools of blood while doctors attempted to deal with dozens of injured people who had been badly beaten or shot.
Unrest and violence were also reported in other cities, including Talas and Naryn, where thousands of anti-government protesters reportedly seized government buildings and ousted regional leaders.
"When people started marching toward the presidential office, snipers on the roof of the office started to open fire with live bullets," Dmitri Kabak, the director of a local human-rights group in Bishkek, was quoted as saying by The New York Times.
A look at Kyrgyzstan, a poor Central Asian nation hit by anti-government protests that have left dozens dead and hundreds wounded:
GEOGRAPHY A largely mountainous country in the middle of Asia, a third the size of Alberta, Kyrgyzstan borders China and three other former Soviet republics: Uzbekistan; Tajikistan and Kazakhstan.
POPULATION About 5 million people; around 65 per cent are ethnic Kyrgyz, 14 per cent Uzbek, 13 per cent Russian.
ECONOMY It is mostly agricultural, and about half the population lives below the poverty line. Remittances sent home from Kyrgyz workers abroad (mostly in Russia) are significant, and plunged during the global recession.
STRATEGIC IMPORTANCE It is a key supply centre for the war efforts against the Taliban in nearby Afghanistan. The U.S. opened an air base in Kyrgyzstan in 2001 and Russia opened an air base in 2003. Kyrgyzstan is also seen as a relatively stable corner in a volatile region.
REASONS FOR VIOLENCE President Kurmanbek Bakiyev came to power in street protests of 2005 dubbed the Tulip Revolution that forced his predecessor, Askar Akayev, to flee. But Mr. Bakiyev, like Mr. Akayev, has grown increasingly authoritarian and critics say he has sacrificed democratic standards to maintain peace. Opponents also complain he has installed relatives in key government posts. Anger at huge hikes in utility prices has galvanized opposition this year and fed public dissent.
The Associated Press