JALALABAD, Kyrgyzstan (Reuters) - Kyrgyzstan’s interim rulers ran into fresh hostility in the restive south on Sunday after supporters of the country’s deposed president laid siege to regional government headquarters.
Kurmanbek Bakiyev, toppled in a violent popular revolt on April 7, went into exile last week after days of turmoil that threatened civil war and disrupted military flights from a crucial U.S. air base that supports operations in nearby Afghanistan.
The new government, which has yet to be formally recognized globally, says it controls the entire nation, but the situation appeared fluid in the south, Bakiyev’s tribal stronghold.
Persistent uncertainty in Kyrgyzstan is a worry for the United States and Russia, both of which operate military air bases in the impoverished Muslim nation of 5.3 million.
Bakiyev supporters broke into a regional government office in the southern city of Jalalabad late Saturday and briefly seized a local television channel, witnesses said.
Reuters reporters said the building was guarded by a group of men who identified themselves as Bakiyev loyalists.
The situation appeared calm and did not change throughout the day. No police or security forces were in sight.
The government says it would not use force to intervene, saying stability will return after a while.
“The wave of lawlessness and criminal infighting has reached Jalalabad,” said Edil Baisalov, the interim chief of staff. “Like elsewhere, this region will also return to calm.”
Any further turbulence in a country with a south-north divide is worrisome since the south lies at the heart of Central Asia’s most flammable corner where hundreds died in the 1990s in ethnic clashes between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz.
Almaz Atambayev, an interim deputy premier, arrived in the ancient Silk Road city of Osh in the south in a show of support.
“The aim of my visit is to show that not only the north but also the south supports the new government,” he told Reuters.
A few dozen protesters remained outside, some holding banners in support of Bakiyev’s defense minister, who was arrested by the interim government last week.
“We voted for Bakiyev. He is our president. I don’t believe that he resigned. I want him back,” said Sultan-Maksut Dubanayev, a 55-year-old resident of Jalalabad.
The events have thrown the fate of the U.S. air base into question. Hawks in the new administration have called for the U.S. base to be shut, accusing the United States of ignoring corruption and abuses under Bakiyev in order to keep the base.
For now, interim chief Roza Otunbayeva says the government would abide by its U.S. base agreements and allow the lease to be extended automatically for another year this summer.
There were conflicting reports about Bakiyev’s whereabouts. Kazakh officials said he was in the Kazakh city of Taraz but some media reported that he had moved on from there elsewhere.
Belarus Sunday offered Bakiyev refuge. “We would receive him as our dearest guest, as my colleague, as the president of Kyrgyzstan,” Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko was quoted as saying by state news agency Belta.
The new government says it allowed Bakiyev to escape in order to avoid civil war, saying that Bakiyev had sent a formal letter of resignation shortly after fleeing.
His close family member told Reuters in the clan village of Teyyit that the letter, which was shown to reporters Friday, was a fake and that Bakiyev had never intended to resign.
Bakiyev and brother are accused of ordering troops to open fire on protesters after anti-Bakiyev demonstrations exploded into a night of gunfire on April 7. At least 84 people died.
Writing by Maria Golovnina in Bishkek; Additional reporting by Olga Dzyubenko in Bishkek and Andrei Makhovsky in Minsk; Editing by Michael Roddy