Police used tear gas and stun grenades Thursday to disperse thousands of opposition protesters who had marched to the president’s office in the Kyrgyz capital to demand his resignation.
Some 7,000 demonstrators had gathered in front of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s compound, chanting “Bakiyev go!” It was the ninth day of anti-government protests in the Central Asian nation, host to both a U.S. and Russian air base.
Some young protesters taunted riot police by waving flags in front of them, and others threw stones and plastic bottles at officers.
Several hundred riot police fired tear gas canisters and stun grenades at the crowd late in the evening, forcing many to flee. Protesters ran through clouds of smoke as the sharp bangs of the percussion grenades rang out around them.
Police then formed lines and pushed protesters away from the building and the adjacent square — site of a tent camp that anchored more than a week of opposition demonstrations. It was swiftly emptied of protesters, who put up no resistance.
Trucks later arrived at the square and authorities began removing dozens of tents and traditional yurts that opposition supporters had set up last week, vowing to remain until Bakiyev resigned.
History of political protests
The poor, ex-Soviet republic has been plagued by political tensions since street protests forced longtime President Askar Akayev out of office in March 2005. Protesters stormed the presidential headquarters after a day of demonstrations, prompting Akayev to flee, and he later took refuge in Russia.
Both the U.S. and Russia have air bases in the Central Asian ex-Soviet republic, making the prospect of political instability in the country a major concern. The U.S. base supports combat operations in Afghanistan; Russia’s was established under a regional security treaty.
Before the rally Thursday, opposition leader Omurbek Tekebayev told reporters it was becoming difficult for the organizers to control “the radical youth” among the protesters — a warning that violence could break out.
Interior Minister Bolotbek Nogoibayev said that after protesters dispersed, some were gathering in groups as large as 100 at locations across the city, stopping cars and breaking shop windows. He told reporters that 3,500 police officers would be on duty in Bishkek all night to keep order.
Nogoibayev said the rally organizers would be brought to account for inciting mass disorder.
Another opposition leader, Felix Kulov, accused authorities of provoking disorder to create a pretext to crack down on protesters.
“We did all we could to prevent provocations,” he told reporters.
Growing accusations of corruption, cronyism
Widespread looting erupted in Bishkek after protesters chased Akayev out of office, with crowds smashing store windows or setting fire to shops and stealing merchandise.
Bakiyev, who was elected after Akayev’s removal, has been under growing opposition pressure amid accusations of corruption and cronyism. He further angered the opposition in December when he reversed several constitutional amendments and regained the authority to form his own Cabinet.
The possibility of further unrest remains high. The clan-dominated nation of 5 million people is divided by historic rivalries between the north and the south, and Akayev’s swift downfall at the hands of protesters raised concerns that political struggles would continue to be resolved in the streets.
Most protesters on the square come from northern regions — home to many opposition leaders — and there was widespread speculation that groups of southerners were arriving in Bishkek to back Bakiyev, who comes from the south.