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President Askar Akayev’s administration collapsed in Kyrgyzstan on March 24, as anti-government protesters stormed the presidential palace, and then liberated a leading opposition figure from prison. The country’s new leaders struggled to maintain control, as protests gave way to looting as night fell upon Bishkek.

Akayev’s whereabouts were unknown late on March 24. The Russian news agency Interfax reported that Akayev had flown to Kazakhstan. Another report issued by the agency suggested his ultimate destination may be Russia. Initially it appears the deposed Kyrgyz leader took refuge at a Russian air base outside the capital. None of the reports could be immediately verified. At the same time, an OSCE official announced that Akayev was not seeking sanctuary at OSCE offices in Bishkek.

Protesters were in control of key government buildings in Bishkek, including the presidential palace, government building and state television studios. After taking over the presidential palace, group of protesters went on to Moldavanovka prison near Bishkek, where they freed Kyrgyzstan’s most prominent political prisoner, Feliks Kulov, a former vice president turned Akayev critic. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. With Akayev in hiding, protesters forced the resignations of top government officials, including the defense and interior ministers, along with Prime Minister Nikolai Tanayev. Kulov claimed that Akayev had also formally resigned.

Akayev’s leading political opponents, who played a key role in stoking the so-called people’s power movement, acted to fill the power vacuum in the capital. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The leading people’s power politicians, including Roza Otunbayeva, Kurmanbek Bakiyev and Muratbek Imanaliyev, established a coordinating council to discuss steps to provide security in Bishkek and elsewhere, and devise a political strategy for the country’s immediate future.

In an effort to preserve a semblance of legitimate government, the new coordinating council called for a session of the old bicameral Kyrgyz parliament. A new unicameral legislature had held its first session March 22, but that legislative body was dismissed as artificial creation of the president’s. Complaints about irregularities in the recent parliamentary vote served as the catalyst for the people’s power movement, which quickly swept across southern Kyrgyzstan in the aftermath of the second round of voting March 13. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Court created a legal basis for the revival of the old legislature by ruling the recent election results invalid, the Russian Itar-Tass news agency reported. The special parliamentary session named former opposition politician Ishenbai Kadyrbekov as interim president. The legislators were widely expected to consider setting dates for new elections.

Members of the provisional leadership team have suggested that a presidential vote should be held in the late spring, followed by fresh parliamentary elections in the fall. The old parliament would continue to serve until new legislative elections.

Amid the revolutionary developments in Bishkek, several instances of looting and destruction of property were reported during the day. In a televised address, Kulov, only hours after being freed from jail, appealed for calm and order. "It is important to show the world that we are a civilized people, and that we can keep things under control," Kulov said. "Anyone who attempts to destabilize the situation, to stir up trouble, shall be punished to the greatest extent of Kyrgyz law."

Kulov also said that the provisional leadership now in charge would look to the constitution of Kyrgyzstan to "decide" important political questions. He added that the personal security of Akayev and his family would be guaranteed.

Despite Kulov’s appeal for order, widespread looting continued overnight amid the absence of law-enforcement officers on the streets. The headquarters of the mobile phone company Bitel was gutted. One observer described Bishkek as sinking into a state of "anarchy," with gangs of people roaming the streets and plundering any store with consumer goods. Some Bishkek residents blamed protestors from southern Kyrgyzstan for the lawlessness, and some observers voiced concern that the looting could stoke regional tension between the North and the South.

Anti-government unrest had been building for weeks – ever since the end of the first round of parliamentary election voting February 27. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Until the sudden outburst of popular fury in Bishkek on March 24, however, discontent had been largely confined to southern Kyrgyzstan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Akayev’s sudden downfall began when a crowd of up to 15,000 anti-government demonstrators gathered in the early afternoon at central Ala-Too square. These protesters clashed with several hundred pro-Akayev demonstrators, many of whom were seen wielding clubs. The anti-government crowd confronted riot police. Witnesses reported hearing several shots fired. According to the AKIpress news agency, two people died and 121 people were injured during the clashes and the subsequent looting rampage.

After the anti-government protesters succeeded in established control over the square, they moved against the presidential compound across the street. At this stage, security forces did little to prevent a take-over of Bishkek’s "White House."

Some protesters proceeded to ransack the seat of Akayev’s power, smashing windows and breaking furniture. Anti-government crowds later took control of other government buildings, as security forces made no effort to defend the government.

According Giyaz Tokombayev, a long-time Akayev critic and head of the Republican Party, protesters discovered several compromising documents among the president’s papers in the White House. One reportedly was an appeal signed by Akayev to Russian President Vladimir Putin seeking support for an intended military operation to suppress the people’s power revolution. Protesters also supposedly uncovered a presidential memorandum containing instructions to the country’s Central Election Commission governing the conduct of the recent legislative election.

The Kyrgyz revolution sent shockwaves rumbling across Central Asia. Authoritarian-minded leaders of neighboring states are clearly worried that the explosion of pent-up popular frustration in Bishkek -- primed in large part by persistent poverty and pervasive government corruption -- could stir citizens of their own respective countries into staging anti-government actions. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

On March 24, Kazakhstan followed the examples of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in tightening controls along its border with Kyrgyzstan. The Kazakhstani Embassy in Bishkek issued a statement voicing alarm and "expressing concern about the security and stability of the Kyrgyz Republic, and, in general, the entire region of Central Asia."

The Kazakhstani statement also specifically denied a rumor that Kazakhstani special forces had participated in Kyrgyzstani government operations aimed at reasserting Bishkek’s control over the southern provinces of Jalal-Abad and Osh. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "We consider these rumors to be deliberate disinformation, which is designed to stir up tension and incite inter-ethnic conflict," the statement said.

Speaking to reporters in Moscow, Gen. Yuri Baluyevski, the Russian Armed Forces chief of staff, said the security had been tightened at Russia's Kant air base outside of Bishkek. “We hope the doped, riotous mob will not fully destabilize [Kyrgyzstan],” the RIA-Novosti news agency quoted Baluyevski as saying.

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