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Kyrgyz protesters threaten to oust president

BISHKEK (Reuters) - Thousands of Kyrgyz protesters threatened on Wednesday to oust President Kurmanbek Bakiyev if he failed to accede to their demands within a week, five years exactly after violent protests propelled him to power.

A strategic nation, home to U.S. and Russian air bases, Kyrgyzstan marks the fifth anniversary next week of the so-called Tulip Revolution when crowds stormed the presidential palace, toppling Bakiyev’s long-serving predecessor.

Bakiyev, hailed at the time as Central Asia’s most democratic leader, has since been accused by the opposition of tightening his grip on power, jailing political opponents and failing to root out corruption.

Chanting “Down with Bakiyev!,” more than 3,000 protesters rallied in the capital Bishkek to express their discontent with his rule, in the biggest street protest in about three years.

“The authorities don’t listen to us. If they continue to ignore us ... we will seize power,” opposition leader Omurbek Tekebayev told the roaring crowd, as some waved flags and shouted “We have to oust this government.”

At the rally, the opposition gave Bakiyev until March 24 to “release political prisoners,” “stop repressions,” abolish high utility fees and conform with a range of other demands.

A mountainous nation of feuding clans and a traditionally strong opposition movement, Kyrgyzstan hosts a U.S. air base used for operations in nearby Afghanistan, and its stability is key to preserving calm in Central Asia.

The government could not be reached for comment. On Monday, Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov said the opposition was free to protest publicly as long as their actions were within the law.

Battered by an economic slump, the former Soviet republic has seen a rise in discontent this year, and the opposition is keen to seize the opportunity to consolidate their movement.

Bakiyev’s office is holding a separate national assembly, or the so-called kurultai, on March 23-24 to bring together pro-presidential forces ranging from senior cabinet members to village elders to discuss policies and plans for this year.

The opposition ultimatum on March 24 coincides with the kurultai as well as the Tulip Revolution. It said it would march on his headquarters if Bakiyev did not accede to their demands.

“We are giving them seven days. Otherwise we will organize a protest march,” said Toktoaim Umetaliyeva, an opposition activist. “The Kyrgyz people will wait for seven days and then we will seize power.”

Writing by Maria Golovnina; Editing by Louise Ireland