Kyrgyzstan’s opposition said on Thursday it has taken over the government of the impoverished Central Asian state after at least 47 people were killed in violent protests that forced the president to flee the capital.
Opposition leader Roza Otunbayeva demanded the resignation of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, whom she helped bring to power five years ago, and told Reuters she would run an interim government for six months.
“We have a caretaker government now in place, and I am the head of it,” Otunbayeva said. “It will remain in place for half a year, during which we will draft the constitution and create conditions for free and fair (presidential) elections.”
Bakiyev left Bishkek, where thousands of demonstrators torched the prosecutor-general’s office and tried to smash trucks into government buildings, and flew to the southern city of Osh, an opposition member of parliament told Reuters earlier.
Otunbayeva said she had not been in contact with Bakiyev.
Sporadic gunfire continued through the night in Bishkek as crowds looted shops and ran through streets strewn with rubble and glass, whistling and waving red national flags. Many buildings were ablaze and the border with Kazakhstan was closed.
Kyrgyz news agency Kabar said looters ransacked and set ablaze a house belonging to the family of Bakiyev.
The violent unrest, which spread to Bishkek on Wednesday a day after protests in a provincial town, was sparked by growing discontent over corruption and rising prices in a nation where a third of the 5.3 million population live below the poverty line.
The United States has a military air base supporting troops in Afghanistan in the Kyrgyz city of Manas and is a major donor to Kyrgyzstan, along with China and Russia, which also has military base in the former Soviet state.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said operations at the Manas base — visited by U.S. Central Command chief General David Petraeus last month — appeared unaffected.
“It’s an important facility connected to our Afghan operations and it’s functioning normally,” he said.
Bakiyev came to power in the 2005 “Tulip Revolution” protests, led jointly by Otunbayeva, which ousted Kyrgyzstan’s first post-Soviet president, Askar Akayev. She briefly served as acting foreign minister before falling out with Bakiyev.
Spokesmen for the president were not available for comment.
A senior U.S. State Department official said Bakiyev’s fate was unclear. Asked whether the president was still in power, the official said on condition of anonymity: “The situation is unclear. We are in touch with both government officials and the opposition encouraging resolution according to the rule of law.”
Political unrest over poverty, rising prices and corruption has gripped Kyrgyzstan since early March. The average monthly wage is about $130 and remittances from workers in Russia have fallen sharply during the global economic crisis.
Analysts said the unrest would also increase uncertainty for foreign investors in Kyrgyzstan’s mining sector and raised the possibility of outside military intervention.
“Bakiyev is unlikely to return to power but the prevailing uncertainty poses severe risks to foreign investors, raises the possibility of foreign intervention and will directly affect U.S. interests in Central Asia,” Eurasia Group analyst Ana Jelenkovic said in a note.
The opposition said at least 100 people had been killed on Wednesday. A Health Ministry official put the death toll in Bishkek at 47, and said 420 people had been injured.
A doctor at a Bishkek hospital said many of the victims had been shot. “There are dozens of dead bodies, all with gunshot wounds,” Akylbek Yeukebayev told Reuters.
The foreign ministry in China, which shares a border with Kyrgyzstan, said it was “deeply concerned” about the unrest.
“Kyrgyzstan’s situation returning to normal as soon as possible is in the interest of the Kyrgyz people, as well as in the interest of regional peace and stability,” spokeswoman Jiang Yu said in a statement on the ministry website www.fmprc.gov.cn.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin earlier called for calm and denied Moscow had played a hand in the clashes.
“Neither Russia, nor your humble servant, nor Russian officials have any links whatsoever to these events,” Putin was quoted as saying by RIA news agency.
Kyrgyz troops earlier shot at thousands of anti-government protesters who tried to smash two trucks through the perimeter fence of government buildings. Opposition activists also took control of state television channel KTR.
Protesters seized government buildings in three other towns. In Talas, Kyrgyz First Deputy Prime Minister Aklybek Japarov and Interior Minister Moldomusa Kongantiyev were beaten. Kongantiyev was forced to shout: “Down with Bakiyev!”, two witnesses said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited Bishkek last week and called on the government to do more to protect human rights.
“The secretary-general is shocked by the reported deaths and injuries that have occurred today in Kyrgyzstan. He urgently appeals for dialogue and calm to avoid further bloodshed,” Ban’s spokesman, Martin Nesirky, said on Wednesday.
(Additional reporting by Alexander Reshetnikov in Bishkek; Guy Faulconbridge, Amie Ferris-Rotman and Conor Sweeney in Moscow; Sylvia Westall in Vienna and Lucy Hornby in Beijing; Writing by Robin Paxton and Alison Williams; Editing by Louise Ireland)