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Page last updated at 21:06 GMT, Wednesday, 7 April 2010 22:06 UK

Kyrgyzstan violence leaves uncertainty

By Firdevs Robinson
Editor, BBC Central Asian service

A Kyrgyz opposition supporter hands a national flag to a fellow demonstrator standing on a military vehicle during an anti-government protest in Bishkek, 7 April, 2010

At the end of a violent and chaotic day, the central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan seems to have turned another page in its short history.

If opposition sources are to be believed, President Kurmanbek Bakiyev - the charismatic leader of the so-called 2005 Tulip Revolution - has gone the way he came to power: on a wave of street protests. His whereabouts remain unknown.

The united opposition that has toppled him chose as its leader a former foreign minister of the Bakiyev administration, Roza Otubayeva.

Trouble has been brewing for weeks, starting with demonstrations against a hike in utility prices.

Opposition parties had called for political gatherings on Tuesday and Wednesday. The first spark of unrest came from the north-western city of Talas, when crowds stormed a government office.

The government responded with a nationwide crack-down, arresting opposition leaders, cutting communication links and further limiting the media.

Leaderless and angry, the crowds soon gathered around the presidential palace and clashes broke out.

Live ammunition

Unlike his predecessor's reaction to the uprising that brought him to power in 2005, President Bakiyev's government chose to fire on the protesters.

When rubber bullets and tear gas did not contain the crowds, live ammunition was fired, leaving dozens of people dead, and hundreds injured.

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Violence on the streets of Bishkek as protesters and police clash

Coming just days after UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged the country to improve its governance and human rights record, the unrest in Kyrgyzstan has alarmed its neighbours and countries beyond.

The first strong message of restraint came from neighbouring Kazakhstan, which holds the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

The EU called for the immediate release of opposition leaders so a peaceful solution could be found through negotiations.

Memories of 2006

Russia, which played an important role during the Tulip Revolution of 2005 by providing refuge for former President Askar Akayev in Moscow, has so far kept its distance this time.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called for restraint and denied any involvement.

The opposition is confident that power has permanently changed hands.

KYRGYZSTAN FACTS
One of the poorest of the former Soviet states
Hosts both US and Russian military air bases
Population mostly Kyrgyz but 15% are Uzbek and a significant number of Russians live in the north and around the capital
Kurmanbek Bakiyev has been president since the Tulip Revolution of 2005, which overthrew the government of Askar Akayev
Mr Bakiyev vowed to restore stability but has been accused of failing to tackle corruption
Opponents also complain he has installed relatives in key government posts
Domestic media have come under increasing pressure from the government in recent months

"We have full control of the government," one of the opposition leaders, Azimbek Beknazarov, told BBC Kyrgyz.

A similar announcement followed, this time from the appointed leader of the united opposition, Ms Otunbayeva, calling herself "the head of the government of people's trust".

It brought back memories of my meeting with her in 2006 in Bishkek, soon after she became an opponent of President Bakiyev.

"Once the people get the taste of toppling presidents by getting on to streets, it will be difficult to change governments any other way," she warned at the time.

Like President Akayev before him, Mr Bakiyev had lost popular support as well as the backing of national and regional elites.

Increasingly authoritarian, he was accused of widespread corruption and nepotism.

If the country wants to break the vicious circle of violent uprisings and mob rule that Ms Otunbayeva once talked about, the new leaders will have to prove that they are different.

As Bishkek gets ready for a new day under emergency rule, it is not only the smoke from burning buildings that is casting dark clouds over the capital.

With frenzied looters on its streets and untested new leaders in its government offices, a tense and uncertain future awaits Kyrgyzstan.

Map of Bishkek



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