- The Washington Times - Monday, March 21, 2005

OSH, Kyrgyzstan — Thousands of protesters, some armed with clubs and Molotov cocktails, seized control of key government buildings and the airport in Kyrgyzstan’s second-largest city yesterday, prompting security officers and local officials to flee and loosening the government’s grip over a swath of this former Soviet republic.

The opposition also took control of government buildings in four other cities and towns across Kyrgyzstan’s impoverished south, Interior Ministry spokesman Nurdin Jangarayev said.

Protesters burned and stomped on portraits of President Askar Akayev and seized protective shields from police.

Others ran through the streets carrying bottles of flammable liquid.

The protests yesterday won the first concession from Mr. Akayev, who ordered a probe into charges of widespread vote-rigging in two rounds of parliamentary elections since Feb. 27.

The charges — reminiscent of election fraud claims that toppled governments in two former Soviet republics, Georgia and Ukraine — have led to demands for Mr. Akayev’s resignation and to weeks of increasingly violent protests in this Central Asian republic.

The opposition has charged that Mr. Akayev, 60, who is prohibited from seeking another term, planned to manipulate the parliamentary vote to gain a compliant legislature that would amend the constitution to allow a third term. Mr. Akayev has denied wanting another term.

Abdil Seghizbayev, an aide to Mr. Akayev, vowed that security forces would not take action against the protesters, but said peace talks would be possible only after order is restored.

“Neither the authorities nor opposition leaders can control the crowd right now,” he said. “If an [opposition] leader emerges who can control the protesters, the government will be ready to talk to him.”

The capital, Bishkek, has remained calm, but the opposition vowed yesterday to press on until Mr. Akayev resigned.

Roza Otunbayeva, leader of the Ata-Jurt Movement, one of the main opposition groups, and a former foreign minister, ruled out any talks with Mr. Akayev.

“We have one aim only: to oust this government. … There is no need for talks anymore,” she said.

But another opposition leader, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, said talks would be possible if Mr. Akayev attended.

In Osh, many police, security forces and local officials fled the demonstrators, some of whom shouted, “Akayev, go.” Others burned a billboard bearing Mr. Akayev’s portrait.

The protesters seized the governor’s office and regional police and security stations. About 100 others took control of Osh Airport after meeting no resistance, police said.

Security officers sat on their packs at the airport in the face of protesters, awaiting evacuation.

“This is a new day in our history,” said Omurbek Tekebayev, an opposition official in Osh.

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