BISHKEK (Reuters) - Kyrgyzstan’s new rulers faced riots in the capital and a challenge to their authority in the stronghold of former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev on Monday, raising fears of more turmoil in the Central Asian state.
If unrest continues and deepens, Kyrgyzstan’s future could be thrown again into doubt almost two weeks after Bakiyev was ousted in a revolt.
TURBULENCE CONTINUES, VIOLENCE ERUPTS:
If violence flares up again, then the authority of the interim government will be placed in doubt, threatening the relative calm which followed Bakiyev’s departure.
Serious violence and looting could again open up fears of civil war, which Bakiyev’s departure -- brokered by Russia, the United States and regional powers -- had appeared to allay.
The interim government, led by ex-foreign minister Roza Otunbayeva, says it fully controls the country and has enough forces to maintain stability.
But riots erupted on Monday in Bishkek after crowds of angry men tried to take advantage of the power vacuum to seize lands belonging to residents of villages predominantly populated by ethnic Russians and Meskhetian Turks.
The crowd, armed with sticks, faced off with police in the suburbs, torching three police vans and a police station. Residents said shops were closing in anticipation of looting.
Those riots raise the specter of ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan where Kyrgyz make up 69.6 percent of the 5.3 million population. Uzbeks comprise 14.5 percent and Russians 8.4 percent.
More strife would raise fears about the air base which the United States rents in Manas, just outside the capital, for supporting the war against Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan. Troop flights through the base have already been disrupted.
UNREST FIZZLES OUT:
If unrest were to fizzle out, the interim government would be able to restore its authority, at least in the short and medium term.
Both Russia and the United States have pledged aid and more would be likely to follow as the region’s two biggest powers jostle for influence in the strategically placed region.
The interim government on Monday unveiled a reform plan that it says will help restore democracy.
Still, the new government will have to grapple with tough economic problems. Popular anger over raising utility fees helped to drive protests against Bakiyev.
WILD CARD: BAKIYEV RETURNS?
If Bakiyev were to return, Kyrgyzstan would be thrown into turmoil. Ethnic strife and civil war would be the main risks if he returned to muster support in his southern stronghold.
Since fleeing Kyrgyzstan, Bakiyev has so far made no public statements about his intentions and if he did return the interim government would likely try to arrest him with special forces.
In Jalalabad, a Bakiyev stronghold, loyalists seized a regional government office over the weekend and 1,500 people protested in the city demanding Bakiyev’s return.
“We will restore Bakiyev’s rule,” Jalalabad’s pro-Bakiyev governor, Faizulla Rakhmanov, told Reuters from a regional government office seized by pro-Bakiyev loyalists.
Rakhmanov said he was in touch with Bakiyev, adding the deposed leader would soon come back to lead opposition to the interim government. “Bakiyev of course will come back,” he said.
Bakiyev fled to Kazakhstan on Thursday and Astana said on Monday that he had left Kazakhstan. It was unclear where he was going.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), chaired by Kazakhstan, said Bakiyev had fled to Kazakhstan after efforts by Russia and the United States.
Russia, the United States and regional powers would be likely to oppose Bakiyev’s return.
If he did return ethnic strife could erupt in southern Kyrgyzstan, where in the last days of the Soviet Union clashes between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz left at least 300 dead and thousands injured.
Uzbeks comprise about 40 percent of the 1 million population of Jalalabad region and about 50 percent in the neighboring region of Osh. (Reporting by Maria Golovnina, writing by Guy Faulconbridge, editing by Noah Barkin)
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