BISHKEK (Reuters) - Kyrgyz opposition leader Roza Otunbayeva said on Thursday she had taken over the government after violent protests forced the president of the Central Asian country to flee the capital.
She said she wanted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who she helped bring to power five years ago, to resign.
“We have a caretaker government now in place, and I am the head of it,” Otunbayeva told Reuters by telephone.
“It will remain in place for half a year, during which we will draft the constitution and create conditions for free and fair (presidential) elections,” she said.
Bakiyev left Bishkek — where demonstrators torched the prosecutor-general’s office and tried to smash trucks into government buildings — and flew to the southern city of Osh, an opposition member of parliament earlier told Reuters.
Otunbayeva said she had not been in contact with Bakiyev and had no idea of his whereabouts.
Bakiyev himself came to power in the 2005 “Tulip Revolution” protests, led jointly by Otunbayeva, which ousted Kyrgyzstan’s first post-Soviet president, Askar Akayev. She was a former foreign minister under Bakiyev.
Spokesmen for the government and the president were not available for comment.
Sporadic gunfire continued through the night in Bishkek as crowds looted shops and ran through streets strewn with rubble and glass, whistling and waving red national flags. Many buildings remained ablaze, including the prosecutors’ office.
Kyrgyz news agency Kabar said looters ransacked and set ablaze a house belonging to the family of Bakiyev.
The United States has a military air base supporting troops in Afghanistan in the Kyrgyz city of Manas and is a major donor to Kyrgyzstan, along with China and Russia, which also has military base in the ex-Soviet state of 5.3 million people.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said operations at the base — visited by U.S. Central Command chief General David Petraeus last month — appeared unaffected.
“Right now the transit centre at the Manas airport is functioning normally,” he said. “It’s an important facility connected to our Afghan operations and it’s functioning normally.”
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin earlier called for calm and denied Russia had played a hand in the clashes that have spread across Kyrgyzstan since last month.
“Neither Russia, nor your humble servant, nor Russian officials have any links whatsoever to these events,” Putin was quoted as saying by RIA news agency.
Political unrest over poverty, rising prices and corruption has gripped Kyrgyzstan since early March. About a third of the population live below the poverty line and remittances from workers in Russia have fallen during the global economic crisis.
The opposition said at least 100 people had been killed on Wednesday. A Health Ministry official put the death toll in Bishkek at 47, and said 420 people had been injured.
A doctor at a Bishkek hospital said many of the victims had been shot. “There are dozens of dead bodies, all with gunshot wounds,” Akylbek Yeukebayev told Reuters.
Kyrgyz troops earlier shot at thousands of anti-government protesters who tried to smash two trucks through the perimeter fence of government buildings, a Reuters reporter said.
Around 1,000 people stormed the prosecutor-general’s office before setting fire to the building. Opposition activists also took control of state television channel KTR.
Protesters seized government buildings in three other towns. In Talas, Kyrgyz First Deputy Prime Minister Aklybek Japarov and Interior Minister Moldomusa Kongantiyev were beaten. Kongantiyev was forced to shout: “Down with Bakiyev!,” two witnesses said.
Kyrgyz Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov earlier told Reuters by phone that he and the president were working in their offices.
“We daren’t even look out of the window,” Kamil Sydykov, the prime minister’s spokesman, said by telephone from inside the presidential building.
The protests spread to the capital after riots which began in Talas and Naryn on Tuesday and continued into Wednesday. The border with Kazakhstan was closed.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited Bishkek last week and called on the government to do more to protect human rights.
“The secretary-general is shocked by the reported deaths and injuries that have occurred today in Kyrgyzstan. He urgently appeals for dialogue and calm to avoid further bloodshed,” Ban’s spokesman, Martin Nesirky, said on Wednesday.
Additional reporting by Alexander Reshetnikov in Bishkek; Guy Faulconbridge; Amie Ferris-Rotman and Conor Sweeney in Moscow; Sylvia Westall in Vienna; Writing by Robin Paxton and Alison Williams; Editing by Philippa Fletcher