TEYYIT, Kyrgyzstan (Reuters) - Kyrgyzstan’s new leaders threatened on Monday to unleash forces to hunt down ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, while also hinting at an offer to persuade him to go into exile.
Bakiyev told reporters that any attempt to kill him would result in bloodshed in the impoverished Central Asian nation, which hosts a U.S. military air base regarded as key for fighting the war in Afghanistan.
“Let them try to seize me. Let them try to kill me,” Bakiyev said on Monday after calling on supporters to join rallies in the southern regions of Osh, Jalalabad and Batken, his power base in a country with a north-south political divide.
“I believe this will lead to such a great deal of bloodshed which no one will be able to justify,” he said at the rally of at least 2,000 supporters in his home village of Teyyit, where he has been holed up in his villa.
It was his first public appearance since troops fired on protesters calling for his resignation outside his Bishkek offices on April 7. At least 82 people died and hundreds more were wounded in the violence.
“The most dangerous thing that can happen is all about Bakiyev. He was the president of hope, but very quickly became the president of disappointment,” said Kazakh political analyst Dosym Satpayev. Bakiyev’s opponents — who seized power after he fled and now lead a self-proclaimed interim government — said they were getting ready to use force, while also suggesting that they would make an offer to convince him to leave the country.
“We are preparing a special operation (against Bakiyev),” Almaz Atambayev, the first deputy leader of the interim government, told reporters in Bishkek. “We hope we can carry it out without the deaths of civilians.”
Later, Roza Otunbayeva, the leader of the interim government, said Bakiyev must leave the country, a move that would help cool the turmoil and pave the way for the formal recognition of her government by global powers.
“Everyone is calling on him to leave the Kyrgyz people alone, for Bakiyev to find himself a place outside Kyrgyzstan,” she said. “Bakiyev has certainly raised the question - ‘what will I get in exchange?’... We are working on the question right now to a certain extent.”
The interim government has said Russia is its key ally and some leading ministers have said the U.S. lease on its air base could be shortened, raising speculation Moscow could try to use the base as a lever in relations with Washington.
The transit of troops to and from Afghanistan through the air base, halted earlier due to the political upheaval, has resumed, said the U.S. embassy in a statement. It added it had no plans to shelter Bakiyev or help him leave Kyrgyzstan.
The United States is sending a senior diplomat to Bishkek on Wednesday and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke to interim leader Otunbayeva on Saturday.
But analysts noted Washington, which previously supported Bakiyev, has been slow to court the new government.
The European Union also sent its special envoy for Central Asia, Pierre Morel, to Bishkek for talks with Otunbayeva. He said he was not there to mediate between Otunbayeva and Bakiyev.
“We are working with all sides, with all representatives, because we need to understand what happened,” Morel said.
Both sides have said they want to avoid civil war in a country traditionally divided between north and south along clan lines. The south, densely populated and agrarian, is also ridden by centuries-old ethnic tensions between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz.
Major powers have called for calm in the Muslim nation of 5.3 million. One of the poorest ex-Soviet countries, it has also seen a rise in radical Islamism in past years.
From Teyyit outside the southern city of Jalalabad, Bakiyev said that he had spoken to an envoy from the United Nations to ask for peacekeepers to be sent to Kyrgyzstan.
Bakiyev — who in 2005 became the first Kyrgyz leader from the south of the country since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union — told Reuters on Sunday that any attempt to kill him would “drown Kyrgyzstan in blood”.
Bakiyev has refused to resign, though Russia has recognized the interim government’s authority.
Bakiyev said he had not spoken to world leaders because they were unable to contact him. He said he was still open to speak to those who ran the country, though he branded them “bandits”.
“I am the president and no one can depose me,” Bakiyev told supporters on Monday in a 25-minute speech which was interrupted by chants of “Bakiyev, Bakiyev, Bakiyev” and loud applause.
Bakiyev, who was guarded by about a dozen armed men, spoke on a podium under a green tarpaulin and was watched by locals including bearded village elders.
The ousted president has denied giving the order to riot police and troops to shoot into the crowds of opposition protesters who gathered to demand his resignation.
The uprising in Bishkek could shift the balance of great power rivalries in Central Asia, which holds vast reserves of gas and lies between China, Afghanistan and the Caspian Sea.
Kyrgyzstan’s interim government said that Russia had pledged to provide financial aid to the new leadership.
“We reached agreement on a solid grant,” said Atambayev, who visited Moscow at the end of last week. He said that more than $150 million in aid had been requested. “Kyrgyzstan, for Russia, is a brother country.”
Writing by Guy Faulconbridge, Maria Golovnina and Robin Paxton; Additional reporting by Maria Golovnina and Olga Dzyubenko in Bishkek, Maria Gordeyeva in Almaty; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall and Simon Cameron-Moore