The deposed president of Kyrgyzstan left the country Thursday for neighboring Kazakhstan, allaying fears of a civil war in the Central Asian nation, which hosts a key U.S. military base supporting the war in Afghanistan.
The presidents of the United States, Russia and Kazakhstan helped arrange for Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev to leave the country, Kazakhstan said in its role as the rotating chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. It called Bakiyev's move "an important step toward ... the prevention of a civil war in Kyrgyzstan."
Kyrgyzstan's provisional leader, Roza Otunbayeva, later showed The Associated Press what she said was a formal letter of resignation handwritten by Bakiyev and received by fax.
"Aware of my responsibility for the future of the people and the preservation of the integrity of the state .... I herewith submit my resignation," the letter said.
Otunbayeva said that Bakiyev's departure would prevent clashes between various groups and even regions.
"We managed to avoid new bloodshed," she said. "People in all parts of the country are united in their condemnation of the bloody regime," said Otunbayeva, who looked visibly tired.
Witnesses said Bakiyev flew out from the southern city of Jalal-Abad in a military transport aircraft. The Kremlin said later that the Russian Defense Ministry arranged the flight.
Otunbayeva said that Bakiyev's departure was "the only way to avoid the escalation of tensions and setting one part of the nation against another."
Bakiyev flew to Kazakhstan after the provisional government's warning that he should leave quickly or face trial.
"He had to leave the country because he was afraid of people's justice," deputy head of the new government, Omurbek Tekebayev, told The Associated Press.
Bakiyev was driven from the capital, Bishkek, on April 7 after police opened fire on protesters, who then stormed government buildings. At least 83 people died in the violence.
He fled to Kyrgyzstan's south, his clan power base, and began to rally support, prompting fears that the impoverished country might split into two.
But his efforts suffered a severe blow early Thursday when he tried to speak to a rally in Osh, the region's biggest city. Within a few moments of his taking the stage, gunfire split the air and he was hustled into a car and driven away.
Witnesses said the shots came from his bodyguards who may have been frightened by a group of Bakiyev opponents approaching the rally.
Although there were no reports of injuries, the incident was a humiliating setback to Bakiyev's effort to claim he is still the legitimate president.
Bakiyev had said earlier he would be willing to resign if security guarantees were given to him and close relatives. The interim authorities offered him such guarantees but refused them for his family. Bakiyev's opponents have blamed him and his family for last week's violence, as well as for rampant corruption and other abuses.
Another member of the interim government in Bishkek, Tobchubek Turgunaliyev, said Bakiyev was accompanied on the flight to Kazakhstan only by his wife and two small children. Turgunaliyev told the AP that Bakiyev's former defense minister has been arrested.
Officials that an operation is under way to arrest Bakiyev's brothers, one of whom, Zhanybek, the presidential guards chief, has been accused by the opposition of issuing the order to fire at protesters in Bishkek. Some other members of Bakiyev's close circle have fled to Kazakhstan, and Otunbayeva voiced hope that Kazakh authorities would hand them over.
Otunbayeva said that her government would push for setting up an international commission to investigate alleged crimes of the Bakiyev regime.
Another brother of the ousted president, Kamnybek, speaking later from their home village of Teyit, told the AP that "everything is quiet" there. He said the former defense minister had voluntarily turned himself in to the authorities to avoid bloodshed.
Bakiyev spoke late Wednesday by telephone with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Putin's office didn't release any details of the conversation, but he had earlier offered strong backing to Bakiyev's foes.
Bakiyev's departure raised hopes for a quick settlement of the crisis in the former Soviet republic, which hosts a U.S. air base at the capital's airport. The Manas base has resumed full operations, the U.S. Embassy said in a statement Thursday.
"Refueling operations continue as usual, and the transit of troops has resumed," the embassy said.
The troop transports to and from Afghanistan had been suspended since last week, other than a brief resumption Friday to fly a few hundred troops from the base back to the U.S.
Russia, which also has an air base in Kyrgyzstan, has supported the U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan but has shown growing impatience with the U.S. military presence in the Central Asian region, which it considers its backyard.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said in a statement issued by the Kremlin on Thursday that the Bakiyev regime has collapsed because of corruption, its reliance on clan ties and inability to solve social problems. He said Russia would provide humanitarian aid to Kyrgyzstan.
Putin has met with a member of the provisional Kyrgyz government, Almazbek Atambayev, who came to Moscow to seek financial assistance. Russia responded with promises of $50 million in aid and loans and 25,000 tons of fuel to help with the spring planting.
From Russia, Atambayev flew to Ankara where he met with President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
"We don't want to kill Bakiyev, we don't want his blood," Atambayev said. "But he must be brought to court one day and answer to the Kyrgyz nation."
Officials in provisional government that Bakiyev could fly to Latvia, where his two sons are said to be, or to Turkey or the United Arab Emirates, where he reportedly has business interests.
Herbert Salber, the director of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Conflict Prevention Center, who just returned from a visit to Kyrgyzstan, said Bakiyev's departure will help stabilize the nation.
Salber, speaking to reporters Thursday, also warned that a large number of arms were looted from police, local administration buildings and possibly the army during the unrest earlier this month. Officials are trying to determine the whereabouts of the weapons, he said.
In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the arrangements for Bakiyev to depart Kyrgyzstan on a Kazakh airliner were worked out earlier this week in Washington during a meeting between President Barack Obama, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Russia's Medvedev.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who visited Kyrgyzstan just before the violence erupted, called Bakiyev's departure "an important step toward the peaceful, stable, prosperous and democratic development of the country and its good governance," U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
Kazakhstan's foreign minister, in his capacity as the OSCE's rotating chairperson, issued a statement Thursday saying that, along with the U.S., Russian and Kazakh presidents, the United Nations, the European Union and the OSCE all helped negotiate Bakiyev's departure.
"This development is an important step toward the stabilization of the situation, a return to a framework providing for the rule of law, and the prevention of a civil war in Kyrgyzstan," it said.
Associated Press writers Sasha Merkushev in Jalal-Abad, Yuras Karmanau and Leila Saralayeva in Bishkek, Veronika Oleksyn in Vienna, Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara, Turkey, Robert Burns in Washington, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.