BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — Anti-government unrest rocked the Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan on Wednesday as thousands of protesters stormed the main government building, set fire to the prosecutor's office and took over state television.
The UK's Daily Mail
reports that authoritarian President Kurmanbek Bakiyev fled the country after ordering his forces to fire on protesters.
The eruption of violence shattered the relative stability of this mountainous former Soviet nation, which houses a US military base that is a key supply center in the fight against the Taliban in nearby Afghanistan.
At least 17 people were killed and at least 180 wounded in clashes between demonstrators and security forces, the government said. The main opposition leader said 100 demonstrators had been slain but the claim could not immediately be confirmed.
The leader of main opposition party Ata-Meken announced on national television that he was negotiating with the president and demanding he step down. Government officials could not immediately be reached for comment on the claim.
Ata-Meken head Omurbek Tekebayev said he wanted every family to adopt the philosophy "freedom or death."
The chaos erupted after elite police at government headquarters in the capital, Bishkek, opened fire to drive back crowds furious over government corruption and a recent hike in power prices. Protesters seized and looted the state TV building and marched toward the Interior Ministry, according to Associated Press reporters on the scene, before changing direction and attacking a national security building nearby. They were repelled by security forces.
Opposition activist Shamil Murat told the AP that Interior Minister Moldomusa Kongatiyev had been beaten to death by a mob in the western town of Talas where the unrest began a day ago. The respected Fergana.ru Web site reported later that Kongatiyev was badly beaten but had not died, saying its own reporter had witnessed the beating.
Dozens of wounded demonstrators lined the corridors of one of Bishkek's main hospitals, a block away from the main square, where doctors were unable to cope with the flood of patients. Weeping nurses slumped over dead bodies, doctors shouted at each other and the floors were covered in blood.
Health Ministry spokeswoman Yelena Bayalinova said 180 people were hurt in the clashes Wednesday, without elaborating. Opposition activist Toktoim Umetalieva said at least 100 people had died after police opened fire with live ammunition. The number of 17 dead was confirmed by another government health official speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
The unrest began Tuesday in the western city of Talas, where demonstrators stormed a government office and held a governor hostage, prompting a government warning of "severe" repercussions for continuing unrest.
The opposition called nationwide protests for Wednesday, vowing to defy increasingly authoritarian President Kurmanbek Bakiyev.
Since coming to power in 2005 on a wave of street protests known as the Tulip Revolution, Bakiyev has ensured a measure of stability, but many observers say he has done so at the expense of democratic standards while enriching himself and his family.
Over the past two years, Kyrgyz authorities have clamped down on free media, and opposition activists say they have routinely been subjected to physical intimidation and targeted by politically motivated criminal investigations. Many of the opposition leaders once were allies of Bakiyev.
Anti-government forces have been in disarray until recently, but widespread anger over a 200 percent hike in electricity and heating gas bills has galvanized the fractious opposition.
Police in Bishkek at first used rubber bullets, tear gas, water cannons and concussion grenades Wednesday to try to control crowds of young men clad in black who were chasing police officers, beating them up and seizing their arms, trucks and armored personnel carriers.
Some protesters then tried to use a personnel carrier to ram the gates of the government headquarters, known as the White House. Many of the protesters threw rocks, but about a half dozen young protesters shot Kalashnikovs into the air from the square in front of the building.
"We don't want this rotten power!" protester Makhsat Talbadyev said, as he and others in Bishkek waved opposition party flags and chanted: "Bakiyev out!"
Some 200 elite police began firing, pushing the crowd back from the government headquarters. The president was not seen in public Wednesday and his whereabouts were unclear.
Protesters set fire to the prosecutor general's office in the city center, and a giant plume of black smoke billowed into the sky.
Groups of protesters then set out across Bishkek, attacking more government buildings.
At least 10 opposition leaders were arrested overnight and were being held at the security headquarters in Bishkek, opposition lawmaker Irina Karamushkina said.
One of them, Temir Sariyev, was freed Wednesday by protesters.
The US State Department called for peace and restraint on both sides.
The prime minister, meanwhile, accused the opposition of provoking the violence in the country of 5 million people.
"What kind of opposition is this? They are just bandits," Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov said.
Unrest also broke out for a second day in the western town of Talas and spread to the southern city of Naryn.
Some 5,000 protesters seized Naryn's regional administration building and installed a new governor, opposition activist Adilet Eshenov said. At least four people were wounded in clashes, including the regional police chief, he said.
Another 10,000 protesters stormed police headquarters Wednesday in Talas, where on Tuesday protesters had held the regional governor hostage in his office.
The protesters beat up the interior minister, Kongatiyev, and forced him to call his subordinates in Bishkek and call off the crackdown on protesters, a correspondent for the local affiliate of US-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty said.
Witnesses said the crowd in Talas looted police headquarters Wednesday, removing computers and furniture. Dozens of police officers left the building and mingled with protesters.
In the eastern region of Issyk-Kul, protesters seized the regional administration building and declared they installed their governor, the Ata-Meken opposition party said on its Web site.
Hundreds of protesters overran the government building Tuesday on
Talas' main square. They were initially dispersed by baton-wielding
police, but then fought through tear gas and flash grenades to regroup,
burning police cars and hurling stones and Molotov cocktails.
Usenov said Tuesday's violence in Talas had left 85 officers injured and 15 unaccounted for.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who met with Bakiyev in Kyrgyzstan on
Sunday, arrived in Moscow on Wednesday at the end of a trip to several
Central Asian nations.
"The secretary-general is shocked by the
reported deaths and injuries that have occurred today in Kyrgyzstan,"
UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said. "He once again calls on all concerned
to show restraint. He urgently appeals for dialogue and calm to avoid