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Report: Kyrgyzstan President resigns
Updated: 2005-03-24 23:49

Protesters stormed the presidential compound in Kyrgyzstan on Thursday, seizing the seat of state power after clashing with riot police during a large opposition rally. President Askar Akayev reportedly fled the country and resigned.

An opposition leader, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, was at the scene, and state TV appeared to be in the hands of the opposition — underscoring the impression that it was consolidating control. Another leading opponent of the Akayev regime, Felix Kulov, was freed from prison and praised the "revolution made by the people."

Kulov said Akayev had signed a resignation letter, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.

Akayev's whereabouts were not clear. The Interfax news agency, without citing sources, said Akayev had flown to Russia but later said he had landed in Kazakhstan.

During the takeover, about 1,000 protesters cleared riot police from their positions outside a fence protecting the building, and about half entered through the front. Others smashed windows with stones, tossed papers and tore portraits of Akayev in half and stomped on them.

An unknown number of protesters were injured during a clash with a group of men in civilian clothes and blue armbands wielding truncheons. One demonstrator had a serious head injury and a broken leg and another broken ribs, said Iskander Shamshiyev, leader of the opposition Youth Movement of Kyrgyzstan.

Hundreds of police watched from outside the fence, where thousands more protesters remained. Neither side visibly carried any firearms.

The tumultuous scene was the culmination of the first major rally in the capital since opposition supporters seized control of key cities and towns in the south this week to press demands that Akayev step down amid widespread allegations of fraud during parliamentary elections in the former Soviet republic.

Joining the fray, Kyrgyzstan's Supreme Court on Thursday declared the nation's disputed parliamentary elections invalid, ITAR-Tass reported.

The court chairman, Kurmanbek Osmonov, was quoted as saying that the court thus recognized the former parliament as the legitimate legislature.

An ex-lawmaker said Kyrgyzstan's former parliament will hold an emergency session later Thursday to discuss keeping order in the nation and holding a presidential election.

After nightfall, many milled in Ala-Too Square outside the government building, occasionally breaking into cheers.

Inside the building, Ulan Shambetov, an opposition activist, sat in Akayev's office chair surrounded by supporters.

"It's not the opposition that has seized power, it's the people who have taken power. The people. They have been fighting for so long against corruption, against that (Akayev) family," he said.

Topchubek Turgunaliyev, an activist of the opposition People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan, said new parliamentary elections would be held in the fall. "We want to preserve the unity of the nation. We are holding talks with law enforcement officials, so there is coordination," said Turgunaliyev, whose party is headed by Bakiyev.

Edil Baisalov, head of a prominent non-governmental organization that monitored the disputed parliamentary elections, told The Associated Press that a new presidential vote might occur as early as May or June, to be followed later by parliamentary elections. He said the old parliament would serve in the meantime.

The other opposition leader, Kulov, was freed Thursday from a jail where he was serving 10 years for embezzlement and abuse of power — charges he says were fabricated by the Akayev regime. A former vice president, interior minister and mayor of Bishkek, Kulov was arrested after announcing his candidacy to oppose Akayev in the 2000 presidential election.

"It is a revolution made by the people," Kulov said on state television, adding, "Tomorrow will come, and we must decide how to live tomorrow."

Kulov's release could be a key element in unifying the Kyrgyz opposition, which until now has lacked a single clear leader.

The opposition has accused the 60-year-old Akayev, who is prohibited from seeking another term, of manipulating the parliamentary vote to gain a compliant legislature that would amend the constitution to allow him to stay in office beyond a presidential election set for October. Akayev has denied that.

"I am very happy because for 15 years we've been seeing the same ugly face that has been shamelessly smiling at us," said 35-year-old Abdikasim Kamalov, standing outside the building, holding a red Kyrgyz flag. "We could no longer tolerate this. We want changes."

The Central Asian nation's role as a conduit for drugs and a potential hotbed of Islamic extremism, particularly in the impoverished south, makes it volatile. But Kyrgyzstan lacks the rich energy resources or pipeline routes of its neighbors, its strategic location has made it important to both Russia and the United States, which both maintain bases in the former Soviet republic.

Many of the demonstrators came from a rally on the outskirts of Bishkek, where protesters roared and clapped when an opposition activist asserted Akayev's foes would soon control the entire country.

"The people of Kyrgyzstan will not let anybody torment them," Bakiyev told the crowd at the earlier rally. "We must show persistence and strength, and we will win."

The crowd swelled to at least 5,000 as marchers reached the government headquarters, a hulking Soviet-era building set well away from the street and surrounded by helmeted riot police with truncheons and shields. A protester charged through the square on horseback, a yellow opposition flag flapping, and protesters chanted "Akayev, go!"

Officials could be seen leaving through a side door, protected by Interior Ministry troops. Some camouflage-clad troops also left the building peacefully.

The police appeared disorganized and unwilling to take action as the protesters invaded. Dozens of mostly young opposition supporters rampaged inside, some smashing furniture and looting supplies, ignoring protest organizers urging them to stop. Broken glass littered the floors and a drugstore in the building was ransacked.

"It's the victory of the people. But now we don't know how to stop these young guys," said Noman Akabayev, who ran unsuccessfully in the parliamentary elections.

Several hours after the takeover, thick plumes of black smoke rose from two burning cars, apparently belonging to government officials, behind the government building. A fire truck responded to the scene.

Many of the demonstrators wore pink or yellow headbands signifying their loyalty to the opposition — reminiscent of the orange worn by protesters who helped bring in a pro-Western president in Ukraine last year and rose worn in Georgia in 2003.

At the initial rally, Interior Minister Keneshbek Dushebayev addressed the crowd and urged them to obey laws. However, in a departure from his warnings the day before of a possible crackdown that could include "special means and firearms," he vowed that no force would be used against peaceful protesters.

The protests began in southern Kyrgyzstan even before the first round of parliamentary elections on Feb. 27 and swelled after March 13 run-offs that the opposition and the OSCE said were seriously flawed. Protesters took control of the country's second-largest city, Osh, and other administrative centers in the past week.

In power for 15 years, Akayev was long regarded as a reform-minded leader, but in recent years he turned more authoritarian. In 2002, his reputation was tarnished after police killed six demonstrators protesting the arrest of an opposition lawmaker.

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