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Upheaval in Kyrgyzstan Could Imperil Key U.S. Base

Ivan Sekretarev/Associated Press

Police officers in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, were attacked by protesters on Wednesday. Witnesses said the police seemed to panic. More Photos »

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MOSCOW — The president of Kyrgyzstan was forced to flee the capital, Bishkek, on Wednesday after bloody protests erupted across the country over his repressive rule, a backlash that could pose a threat to the American military supply line into nearby Afghanistan.

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Opposition politicians, speaking on state television after it was seized by protesters, said they had taken control of the government after a day of violent clashes that left more than 40 people dead and more than 400 wounded. The instability called into question the fate of a critical American air base in the country.

Riot police officers fired rounds of live ammunition into angry crowds of demonstrators who gathered around government buildings to rally against what they termed the government’s brutality and corruption, as well as a recent decision to increase utility rates sharply. Witnesses said that the police seemed to panic, and that there was no sign of supervision. In several cases, demonstrators wrested their weapons away from them.

By early Thursday morning, opposition officials occupied many government buildings in Bishkek, and were demanding that the president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, sign a formal letter of resignation. Mr. Bakiyev has issued no public remarks since the protests began. An official at the Bishkek airport said Mr. Bakiyev was flying to Osh, a major city in the southern part of the country.

A coalition of opposition parties said a transition government would be headed by a former foreign minister, Roza Otunbayeva. “Power is now in the hands of the people’s government,” she said in a televised address on Wednesday evening.

Those same opposition leaders were angered last spring when Obama administration officials courted Mr. Bakiyev — who they admitted was an autocrat — in an ultimately successful attempt to retain rights to the military base, Manas, used to supply troops in Afghanistan. President Obama even sent him a letter of praise.

Russia had offered Mr. Bakiyev a sizable amount in new aid, which the United States interpreted as an effort to persuade him to close the base in order to limit the American military presence in Russia’s sphere of influence. After vowing to evict the Americans last year, Mr. Bakiyev reversed course once the administration agreed to pay much higher rent for the base.

An American official said late on Wednesday that flights into the base at Manas had been suspended. Lt. Cmdr. Bill Speaks, a spokesman for United States Central Command, said late on Wednesday that some troops and equipment scheduled to transit from Manas to Afghanistan were likely to be delayed because of the government upheaval and that the military was preparing to use other routes.

The American attitude toward Mr. Bakiyev ruffled opposition politicians in Kyrgyzstan, who said it was shameful for the United States to stand for democratic values in the developing world while maintaining an alliance with him.

The Kyrgyz president’s son, Maksim, had been scheduled to be in Washington on Thursday for talks with administration officials. The opposition views the younger Mr. Bakiyev as a vicious henchman for his father, and was infuriated that he was granted an audience. The State Department said late on Wednesday that it had canceled the meetings.

Opposition leaders have been divided in recent weeks over whether they would continue to allow the American military base to remain, but it seems clear that they harbor bitterness toward the United States. And neighboring Russia, which has long resented the base, has been currying favor with the opposition.

“The political behavior of the United States has created a situation where the new authorities may want to look more to Russia than to the United States, and it will strengthen their political will to rebuff the United States,” said Bakyt Beshimov, an opposition leader who fled Kyrgyzstan last August in fear for his life.

Mr. Beshimov was one of numerous opposition politicians and journalists who in recent years have been threatened, beaten and even killed. Kyrgyzstan, with five million people in the mountains of Central Asia, is one of the poorest countries of the former Soviet Union, and has long been troubled by political conflict and corruption. Mr. Bakiyev himself took power in 2005 after the Tulip Revolution, one of a series of so-called color revolutions that seemed to offer hope of more democracy in former Soviet republics. Since then, the Kyrgyz human rights situation has deteriorated. Mr. Bakiyev easily won another term as president last year, but independent monitors said the election was tainted by extensive fraud.

Tensions in Kyrgyzstan have been brewing for months, and seemed to be touched off in the provincial city of Talas on Tuesday by protests over soaring utility rates. Then on Wednesday, thousands of people began massing in Bishkek, where they were met by heavily armed riot police officers. Dmitri Kabak, director of a local human rights group in Bishkek, said in a telephone interview that he was monitoring the protest when riot police officers started shooting. “When people started marching toward the presidential office, snipers on the roof of the office started to open fire, with live bullets,” Mr. Kabak said. “I saw several people who were killed right there on the square.”

Dinara Saginbayeva, a Kyrgyz health official, said in a telephone interview that the death toll could rise, and that more than 350 people had been wounded in Bishkek alone. Opposition leaders said as many as 100 people may have died.

While the fighting was raging, security forces still loyal to the president arrested several prominent opposition leaders, including Omurbek Tekebayev, a former speaker of Parliament, and Almazbek Atambayev, a former prime minister and presidential candidate. They were later released after the government’s resistance appeared to wither.

While opposition leaders have promised to pursue a less authoritarian course, Central Asia has not proved fertile ground for democracy. Mr. Bakiyev himself took office declaring that he would respect political freedoms.

Whatever happens domestically, a new government will have decide how to balance the interests of the United States and Russia, which both have military bases in Kyrgyzstan and want to maintain a presence in the region. Paul Quinn-Judge, Central Asia project director for International Crisis Group, a research organization, said Russia had stoked anti-American sentiment in Kyrgyzstan in recent months, often over the issue of the base.

Nevertheless, Mr. Quinn-Judge said he suspected that opposition politicians would in the end decide to permit the base, though not before giving the United States a hard time. “My gut feeling is that it can be smoothed over,” he said. “But they have got to move fast to reach out to the opposition, and do it with a certain degree of humility.”

Elisabeth Bumiller contributed reporting from Washington.

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