BISHKEK (Reuters) - Kyrgyz riot police fired tear gas and flash grenades to disperse hundreds of anti-government protesters in the capital Bishkek on Wednesday, witnesses said, as protesters stormed government buildings in two other towns.
The clashes followed Tuesday’s riot in the town of Talas, where protesters demanding the resignation of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev seized a local government office and took a regional governor hostage for several hours.
At least 200 people gathered outside the main opposition office in Bishkek, witnesses said. Police with dogs swiftly broke up the crowd, but the protesters later regrouped. Two police cars and a cafe were set on fire, the witnesses said.
Political unrest has gripped Kyrgyzstan, an impoverished former Soviet republic, since early March, threatening a spillover of violence into the fragile, mainly Muslim region.
The latest rallies, sparked by growing public frustration with Bakiyev’s five-year rule, have spread to other parts of the volatile Central Asian republic, which is home to a U.S. military air base used for operations in Afghanistan.
The opposition have been demanding that Bakiyev, who came to power in a people-power revolt in 2005, tackle corruption and fire his relatives from senior positions.
In Naryn, a town in central Kyrgyzstan, about 1,000 opponents of the president had taken over the local government building, forcing the governor to flee, witnesses told Reuters.
A crowd of between 3,000 and 4,000 protesters had gathered on the main square in Talas, a small town in a picturesque valley on the border with Kazakhstan.
Witnesses said the crowd, throwing stones, was attempting to storm the local police headquarters on Wednesday, a day after protesters rampaged through the regional government headquarters building, fighting off police and burning Bakiyev’s portraits.
“We will stay here until the end, no matter what the government does,” Talas Kadyraliyev, a 45-year-old local opposition activist, told Reuters from the scene.
The united opposition movement said more rallies were planned for Wednesday, saying it feared a broader crackdown would ensue as a result of the disturbances in Talas.
Kyrgyz Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov said about 100 people were injured in the violence in Talas. “They are bandits, not an opposition movement,” Usenov told reporters. “This kind of thing cannot be called opposition.”
Russia, which has a military base in Kyrgyzstan, called for restraint.
“We have consistently urged that all disagreements — political, economic and social — are resolved by the existing Kyrgyz democratic procedures without the use of force and without harm to the citizens of Kyrgyzstan,” Interfax news agency quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin as saying.
In Bishkek, officials responded by arresting opposition leaders and vowing to use force to control any unrest.
Temir Sariyev, an opposition leader, was arrested on his arrival on a flight from Moscow early on Wednesday, his supporters said. Three others, Almazbek Atambayev, Omurbek Tekebayev and Isa Omurkulov, were detained on Tuesday.
“The government is clearly trying to prevent further opposition rallies. But we will hold them anyway,” opposition activist Toktoaim Umetaliyeva told Reuters.
The main protest in Bishkek was taking place on the outskirts of the city. Riot police were gathering in and around the main government building in Bishkek, while the streets in the city centre were quiet, a Reuters reporter said.
Bishkek residents said Internet access had been blocked in most households around the city. The main road between Talas and Bishkek had been entirely cordoned off by police, they said.