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Anti-government protesters seize control of Kyrgyzstan capital

MOSCOW—Protesters in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan took control of the capital Thursday as they fought with pro-government partisans, stormed government buildings, took control of the national TV network and apparently chased the president from the country.

It was the third time in two years that opposition forces had overturned an authoritarian government in Russia's back yard in the wake of allegations that elections were fraudulent. Unlike the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003 and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine last year, the Kyrgyz revolt was marred by violence.

Opposition leaders quickly tried to re-establish order Thursday evening as the defense and interior ministers ordered their troops to stand down.

The Supreme Court met in emergency session and annulled the results of a recent parliamentary election that anti-government politicians said was tainted by fraud. Parliament also convened Thursday night and named Ishenbai Kadyrbekov, a former member of Parliament, as acting president.

Reports that President Askar Akayev had fled the country—to Kazakhstan or Russia—were still unconfirmed late Thursday.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said the United States was working with the United Nations, European monitors and "our Russian friends" to keep track of the rapidly unfolding events.

"The future of Kyrgyzstan should be decided by the people of Kyrgyzstan, consistent with the principles of peaceful change, of dialogue and respect for the rule of law," he said.

The United States maintains an air base at the Manas airport outside Bishkek, the capital. The base, with an estimated 1,000 troops, is used principally for flights in support of American forces in Afghanistan.

A Russian military base, known as Kant, sits only a dozen miles away.

Protests have been building in Kyrgyzstan since March 13, when pro-government candidates swept parliamentary elections. Protesters said the vote had been rigged by Akayev loyalists, and European monitors said the elections were badly flawed.

There's also deep resentment at widespread corruption that favors Akayev's family, business friends and political colleagues. The president, 60, a farmer's son and Soviet-trained scientist, has been in power since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

The protests began in the southern cities of Osh and Jalalabad earlier this week when opposition crowds forced their way into government buildings and police stations, then spread to Bishkek, where some, seeking to emulate the uprisings in Georgia and Ukraine, took to calling their revolt "the tulip revolution" or "the narcissus revolution."

Thursday's events in Bishkek began when protesters were charged by stick-wielding Akayev supporters wearing blue armbands.

Fights broke out in the main square and along the principal downtown boulevard. Several dozen injuries were reported. There were no immediate reports of any deaths, and police and security forces didn't fire on the protesters.

Anti-government groups eventually took control of the presidential compound in the city center. They seized the minister of defense—releasing him later—and smashed windows and furniture in the White House.

They also freed opposition leader Felix Kulov, a former vice president and former head of the secret police who was imprisoned five years ago on embezzlement charges.

Kulov said it wasn't clear whether Akayev had resigned from the presidency before fleeing his Bishkek residence.

Kyrgyzstan, with a largely rural and deeply impoverished population of 5 million, isn't well endowed like most of its neighbors in Central Asia. There's only a trickle of oil—not enough to export—and the region's major oil and gas pipelines detour around the mountainous country.

Its geography has been something of a curse lately for Kyrgyzstan. The country has become part of a major transit route for heroin shipments coming out of Afghanistan in record amounts.

Although a moderate Islam prevails among Kyrgyzstan's nomadic peoples, the country also contains part of the Fergana Valley, a hotbed of Islamist extremism. Al-Qaida recruiting is said to be resurgent among the ethnic Uzbeks who live in the valley. Regional analysts and residents of the valley report increased activity in recent years by the radical Islamic group Hizb-ut-Tahrir.

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SOVIET REPUBLICS

The Soviet Union broke up in 1991, creating 14 separate republics, many of them governed by people tied to the defunct Soviet system. Here's a status report on those countries:

ARMENIA: President Robert Kocharian, a former Communist Party member, became president in 1997. He was re-elected in 2003 in a contentious election.

AZERBAIJAN: Political instability postponed elections until 1992. More instability led to the election of Heydar Aliyev, a former KGB agent, as president in 1993. His son, Ilham Aliyev, won the presidency in a disputed election in 2003.

BELARUS: President Alexander Lukashenko was elected in 1994 and re-elected in 1999. A referendum in 2004 did away with limitations on presidential terms. He's expected to run again in 2006.

ESTONIA: Declared independence in 1991 after the "Singing Revolution," in which thousands of Estonians sang in mass demonstrations.

GEORGIA: The "Rose Revolution" of 2003 forced former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze from the presidency amid allegations of widespread voter fraud.

KAZAKHSTAN: Former Communist Party member Nursultan Nazarbayev was elected the country's first president in 1991 and re-elected in 1997.

KYRGYZSTAN: President Askar Akayev apparently resigned and fled the country Thursday after allegations of voter fraud in parliamentary elections sparked opposition protests.

LATVIA: Several governments have formed, dissolved and re-formed since independence in 1991. President Vaira Vike-Freiberga was elected in 1999 and re-elected in 2003.

LITHUANIA: The government has swung from one political party to the other. In January 2004, the president was impeached. A newly elected government took office last December.

MOLDOVA: An election in 2001 led to the Communist Party being in control.

TAJIKISTAN: Instability led to a 1997 peace accord, implemented in 2000. The 1999 and 2000 elections were considered flawed but legitimate. Tajikistan is the only Central Asian country with an Islamic party represented in Parliament.

TURKMENISTAN: President Saparmurat Niyazov was elected in 1991. In 1999, he was named president for life by a Parliament composed of members he'd handpicked.

UKRAINE: Widespread allegations of voter fraud and intimidation in the 2004 presidential campaign led to the "Orange Revolution" protests, which produced a runoff election won by opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko.

UZBEKISTAN: President Islam Karimov was elected in 1991; his term has been extended until 2007.

Sources: State Department, Wikipedia, CIA Factbook

_Compiled by researcher Tish Wells

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050321 Kyrgyzstan facts

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