Kyrgyz president Bakiyev flees, ending standoff

TEYYIT, Kyrgyzstan (Reuters) - Ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev fled Kyrgyzstan on Thursday and a government source said he had quit, a week after an uprising against his five-year rule sparked fears of civil war.

Bakiyev’s flight to neighboring Kazakhstan ended days of turmoil that disrupted U.S. troop flights through its Kyrgyz airbase in support of operations in Afghanistan.

“The president of Kyrgyzstan has flown to Kazakhstan, where he will conduct negotiations on the settlement of the crisis,” Bakiyev aide Ravshan Dzhamgyrchiyev told Reuters.

A source in the interim government, which took control after an April 7 revolt that left dozens dead, said Bakiyev had signed a letter of resignation.

It marked an ignominious end to his rule, five years after he led street protests dubbed the “Tulip Revolution” that ousted the country’s first post-Soviet ruler Askar Akayev on the back of a call for greater democracy.

Earlier on Thursday, the 60-year-old president was bundled into his jeep and whisked away when bodyguards fired into the air to disperse a crowd of 1,000 opponents who tried to disrupt a rally addressed by Bakiyev in his southern stronghold.

Critics accused Bakiyev, a former soldier in the Soviet army, of allowing the same excesses of nepotism and corruption as Akayev.

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Popular anger over a government decision to raise utility fees and a intensified crackdown on dissent and press freedom culminated in protests on April 7. Troops opened fire and at least 84 people died.

Bakiyev took refuge in the south with armed bodyguards trying to rally support.

His days were numbered when first Russia and then the United States pledged support for the interim government, led by ex-foreign minister and former Bakiyev ally Roza Otunbayeva.

In Washington, the State Department said U.S. President Barack Obama, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev discussed the Kyrgyzstan crisis during this week’s nuclear summit in the U.S. capital.

Spokesman P.J. Crowley said the United States believed Bakiyev had been evacuated on a Kazakh plane.

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The turmoil has underlined the rivalries between the United States and Russia in Central Asia, a region between China, Afghanistan and the Caspian Sea formerly ruled by the Soviet Union.

Russia, which also has an air base in Kyrgyzstan, sought to pressure Bakiyev to evict the United States from its Manas air base, through which 50,000 U.S. troops passed last month.

Washington kept the base by paying more rent.

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Russia has denied having a hand in the uprising, although Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was the first world leader to recognize the authority of the interim government.

Otunbayeva on Thursday accused Bakiyev of trying to “unleash a civil standoff between the north and the south.”

“The interim government ... intends to carry out an objective investigation of crimes of which the former president is guilty, and present a demand for him to be tried in Kyrgyz or international courts,” Otunbayeva said.

The interim government has pledged to run the country of 5.3 million people for six months in order to draft a new constitution and hold elections.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), chaired by Kazakhstan, welcomed Bakiyev’s departure, and said it was the result of joint efforts by the presidents of Kazakhstan, Russia and the United States.

“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,” the OSCE chairmanship said in a statement.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ordered the defense ministry to ensure Bakiyev’s flight arrived in Kazakhstan, the Kremlin said. It gave no further details.

Airport officials in Bishkek said Bakiyev arrived in the southern Kazakh city of Taraz.

Hours after Bakiyev fled, Putin had another telephone conversation with Otunbayeva at her request, his spokesman said.

Additional reporting by Maria Golovnina in Bishkek, Conor Sweeney in Moscow and Andrew Quinn in Washington; writing by Guy Faulconbridge, Robin Paxton, and Matt Robinson; editing by Andrew Dobbie