BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan (AP) — President Askar Akayev reportedly fled on yesterday after protesters stormed his headquarters, seized control of state television and rampaged through government offices, throwing computers and air conditioners out of windows.
A 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 letter of resignation, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.
Members of the reinstated parliament that was in power before February’s disputed election met yesterday night to discuss keeping order in the nation and conducting a new presidential vote, perhaps as early as May or June. They elected a former opposition lawmaker, Ishenbai Kadyrbekov, as interim president.
Sitting in Akayev’s chair surrounded by supporters, opposition activist Ulan Shambetov praised the latest uprising to sweep a former Soviet republic.
“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.
The takeover of government buildings in Bishkek followed similar seizures by opposition activists in southern Kyrgyzstan, including the second-largest city, Osh. Those protests began even before the first round of parliamentary elections on Feb. 27 and swelled after March 13 run-offs that the opposition said were seriously flawed. U.S. and European officials concurred.
Later yesterday, Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Court declared the election invalid and recognized the former parliament as the legitimate legislature, said former parliamentary speaker Abdygany Erkebayev.
Akayev’s whereabouts were not known. Both the opposition and Russian news agencies said he had left the country but U.S. officials raised doubts about whether he was no longer in Kyrgyzstan.
Opposition leader Kurmanbek Bakiyev appeared on state TV and declared: “Akayev is no longer on the territory of Kyrgyzstan.”
The Interfax news agency, without citing sources, said Akayev had flown to Russia but later said he had landed in Kazakhstan.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was asked about the reports during a stop in Guatemala.
“The intelligence reports do not verify what you cited from press reports. I’m confident there will be no issue with respect to U.S. forces,” Rumsfeld said.
Bakiyev also said the prime minister had resigned but that those in charge of the Security, Interior and Defense ministries were working with the opposition.
Politics in Kyrgyzstan depends as much on clan ties as on ideology, and the fractious opposition has no unified program beyond calls for more democracy, an end to poverty and corruption, and a desire to oust Akayev, who held power in the former Soviet republic for 15 years.
The fragmented opposition has shown no signs it would change policy toward Russia or the West.
Any change would have impact, since both the United States and Russia have cooperated with Akayev and have military bases near Bishkek. There are about 1,000 U.S. troops at Manas air base outside Bishkek. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he did not believe they would be adversely affected by the turmoil.
Kyrgyzstan’s role as a conduit for drugs and a potential hotbed of Islamic extremism makes it volatile. There is no indication that the opposition would be more amenable to Islamic fundamentalist influence than Akayev’s government has been.
“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,” State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said.
The takeover began with a rally yesterday morning on the outskirts of Bishkek, where about 5,000 protesters roared and clapped when an opposition speaker said they soon would control the entire country.
“The people of Kyrgyzstan will not let anybody torment them,” Bakiyev told the crowd. “We must show persistence and strength, and we will win.”
Interior Minister Keneshbek Dushebayev addressed demonstrators and urged them to obey the law, but he also departed from his warnings a day earlier of a violent crackdown, saying no force would be used against peaceful protesters.
About 1,000 people surged toward the hulking, Soviet-era building that contained Akayev’s offices and met little resistance from the helmeted riot police who held truncheons and shields next to a protective fence. About half of the crowd entered through the front. Others smashed windows with stones, tossed papers and tore portraits of Akayev in half and stomped on them.