- The Washington Times - Friday, April 9, 2010

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan | The president of Kyrgyzstan declared from hiding Thursday that he would not surrender to a violent uprising that put the opposition in control of much of the country, home to a U.S. air base key to the war in nearby Afghanistan.

Just after he spoke, automatic-weapons fire broke out in the capital, miles from the Manas base, where flights were at least temporarily halted and troops were confined to the base.

It was not clear if Kyrgyz forces controlled by the opposition in Bishkek were battling loyalists of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev or simply firing to deter looters after nightfall. There appeared to be little evidence of armed men loyal to Mr. Bakiyev in the capital before dusk.

The opposition has seized vital official buildings in Bishkek and elsewhere and was giving orders to at least some security forces, declaring it controlled four of the nation’s seven provinces. Opposition leader Roza Otunbayeva said parliament had been dissolved and she would head an interim government that would rule for six months until elections were held. She urged Mr. Bakiyev to resign.

Mr. Bakiyev, who has fled the northern capital for his stronghold in the south, told a Russian radio station, “I don’t admit defeat in any way.” However, he also said he recognized that “even though I am president, I don’t have any real levers of power.”

Although the opposition previously has voiced objection to Manas, Ms. Otunbayeva said there were no plans yet to review the lease, which runs out in July, and her government would meet U.S. diplomats for talks in Bishkek.

“Give us time; it will take time for us to understand and fix the situation,” Ms. Otunbayeva said.

Associated Press reporters could hear sustained shooting every few minutes from different directions in Bishkek along with some single shots. Lights in most buildings, including hotels, were put out over fears they would attract gunfire.

U.S. military officials said Kyrgyzstan halted flights for 12 hours Wednesday at the Manas air base, confining troops to the base, and did not say if flights had resumed. About 1,100 troops are there, including contingents from Spain and France also supporting NATO operations in Afghanistan.

This mountainous former Soviet republic exploded Wednesday after protesters furious over corruption and soaring utility bills stormed government buildings in Bishkek. Riot police fired straight into crowds. The Health Ministry said at least 74 people were killed and 400 people hospitalized. After hours of clashes, the opposition seized vital official buildings in the capital and elsewhere and was giving orders to significant numbers of security forces.

Mr. Bakiyev was emphatic Thursday that he was still the elected leader of the nation of 5 million people, which has been courted by China, Russia and the U.S. for its proximity to Afghanistan and resource-rich neighboring nations.

“I do not intend to relinquish power. I see no point,” he said, adding that his re-election nine months ago proved he still had popular support.

Since coming to power in 2005 amid street protests known as the Tulip Revolution, Mr. Bakiyev ensured a measure of stability, but the opposition said he did so at the expense of democratic standards while enriching himself and his family.

He gave his relatives, including his son, top government and economic posts and faced the same accusations of corruption and cronyism that had led to the ouster of his predecessor, Askar Akayev.

Last year, Kyrgyzstan said U.S. forces would have to leave Manas, a decision made shortly after Russia granted Kyrgyzstan more than $2 billion in aid and loans. The government later reversed its stance and signed a one-year deal with the U.S. that raised the rent to about $63 million a year from $17 million.

The U.S. also is paying $67 million for airport improvements and navigation systems and another $51.5 million to combat drug trafficking and terrorism and promote economic development.

• AP writers Leila Saralayeva and Yuras Karmanau in Bishkek; Anita Chang in Beijing; Pauline Jelinek in Washington; Deborah Seward in Paris; and Lynn Berry, Mansur Mirovalev, Nataliya Vasilyeva and David Nowak in Moscow contributed to this report.

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