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Kyrgyz president defiant, opposition mulls arrest

JALALABAD REGION/BISHKEK (Reuters) - Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, ousted in an uprising last week, told Reuters on Sunday he would not resign and that any attempt to kill him would “drown Kyrgyzstan in blood.” The leader of the new interim government, meanwhile, said Bakiyev could be put on trial for responsibility for the killings of at least 81 people during the rebellion against him.

The April 7 revolt in the Central Asian nation, where the United States operates an important military base, forced Bakiyev to flee to his southern home region, locking him in a standoff with the self-proclaimed government in Bishkek.

Citing security concerns, Washington has stopped troops flying to Afghanistan via the air base outside the capital.

Speaking in a traditional “yurt” tent in Jalalabad region, Bakiyev, 60, told Reuters he did not recognize the legitimacy of the interim government but was prepared for talks.

“I would like to warn those who are now hunting for me: don’t be contract killers, because this will only bring huge tragedy to the country,” he said.

“We will drown (Kyrgyzstan) in blood if they opt for physical elimination. If they use force, then those people surrounding me will not let it happen, and this will mean bloodshed.”

A mountainous Muslim nation bordering China, Kyrgyzstan’s $4.7 billion economy has attracted little foreign investment since winning independence from the Soviet Union, but the United States and Russia are jostling for influence in Central Asia.

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U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke by phone on Saturday with interim government head Roza Otunbayeva, in the first high-level U.S. contact with the new leadership.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was the first world leader to recognize Otunbayeva’s authority, holding a phone conversation just hours after the opposition took power.

Once a key Bakiyev ally who helped propel him to power in an earlier revolution in 2005, Otunbayeva told Reuters in an interview she would not use force against Bakiyev but spoke of arresting him to put him on trial for the deaths.

“Bakiyev has to understand that he is stuck in a deadlock,” Otunbayeva said on Sunday. “When he is arrested then ... it will be possible to carry out an investigation and question him within the framework of law.”

She added: “What he did calls for a serious trial.” Otunbayeva has accused Bakiyev’s supporters of stoking violence in the aftermath of the uprising.

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The self-proclaimed government has said Russia is its key ally and some leading ministers have said the U.S. lease on the base could be shortened, raising speculation that Moscow could try to use the base as a lever in relations with Washington.

Pentagon officials say the Manas air base is key to the war against the Taliban, allowing round-the-clock flights in and out of Afghanistan. Some 50,000 troops passed through it last month.

In the call with Clinton, Otunbayeva pledged to honor agreements on the Manas base.

During the night of April 7-8, troops loyal to Bakiyev shot into crowds of thousands of protesters besieging the presidential White House, killing dozens.

Many protesters, armed with weapons seized from Bakiyev’s security forces, fought back, and witnesses said some people may have been killed in the ensuing crossfire, witnesses said.

Bakiyev said he had not ordered the shootings of protesters and that his troops had retaliated immediately after a sniper shot at him in his office in the presidential White House.

“I have not fled (the country) because, first of all, I do not feel any guilt,” he said. He added, however, that he felt regret as president for being unable to prevent the deaths.

“I invite an independent, international commission to investigate these tragic events of April 7-8, because there cannot be any trust in all these investigative bodies that have launched criminal proceedings against me.”

He said U.N. peacekeeping forces were necessary to prevent “continuing chaos” in Kyrgyzstan.

But Otunbayeva warned that her government could not vouch for Bakiyev’s security against those seeking revenge.

“To be honest we can hardly restrain those who are ready to rush there (Bakiyev’s stronghold) with rifles,” she said.

“Everyone among those killed has relatives and friends. There are people who want revenge. It’s a very sensitive situation. You must understand that we won’t be able guarantee his security ourselves.”

Writing by Maria Golovnina and Guy Faulconbridge; additional reporting by Olga Dzyubenko in Bishkek; Editing by Jon Hemming