BISHKEK More than a thousand convicts in Kyrgyzstan have stitched their mouths closed in protest against living conditions in the Central Asian republics prisons.
The protest is an escalation of a two-week-old hunger strike involving most of the country's 7,500 inmates, triggered by a special forces raid of a jail in the capital Bishkek.
A Reuters cameraman who visited the prison on Friday saw 10 inmates with their mouths stitched shut - most had used metal wire. The prisoners, some with heaters and televisions in their cells, appeared calm.
Prison service officials said special forces had been sent into Detention Centre No. 1 earlier in January to quell a riot by prisoners who vandalised their cells and cut their hands and stomachs during a search by guards.
They said guards had been conducting the search as part of a crackdown on smuggling and illegal dealing in prison. Inmates organised a nationwide hunger strike - assisted by mobile telephones smuggled into their cells.
On Friday, the Reuters cameraman saw convicts being led into a courtyard and told to squat. "We are going to treat you with respect," said a prison officer, who did not give his name.
Guards emptied boxes during a search of the cells and confiscated syringes and other banned items.
Mars Jusupbekov, a sub-commander in the Interior Ministry's security service, said 209 inmates in the Bishkek jail had stitched in their mouths. Over 100 prisoners had removed the stitches overnight, he said.
"Yesterday, 300 prisoners took food. Today it was 320," he said.
The hunger strikers have demanded the resignation of the national prison service head and the manager of the detention centre in Bishkek.
Around 6,400 prisoners were on hunger strike nationwide and 1,175 had sewn their mouths closed, although more than 200 later appealed for medical help to remove the stitches, prison service spokeswoman Eleonora Sharshenaliyeva said.
Prison riots occur periodically in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Police in neighbouring Kazakhstan foiled an attempted jailbreak last July. As special forces stormed a penal colony to quell the unrest, an explosion occurred killing six people.
Several inmates were killed during prison riots in Kyrgyzstan in 2005.
An impoverished country of 5.5 million people that hosts both U.S. and Russian military air bases, Kyrgyzstan overthrew its president in April 2010 and was the scene of bloody clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks two months later.
Nearly 7,600 inmates are incarcerated in Kyrgyz prisons, while a further 7,000 convicted of minor offences are confined to their home region and required to check in daily with police.
(Writing by Robin Paxton; Editing by Rosalind Russell)