BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — Violence erupted in this strategic Central Asian nation Wednesday as thousands of protesters angry over the arrests of opposition leaders tried to seize the main government building in the capital after chasing and beating up dozens of police officers.
Police in Bishkek used rubber bullets, tear gas, water cannons and concussion grenades to crack down on the crowds of jubilant young men clad in black, who were disarming officers and seizing their trucks and armored personnel carriers. Several officers were seen bleeding heavily, but no protesters appeared to have been injured.
The protesters tried to use one of the personnel carriers to ram the gates of the government headquarters, known as the White House.
About a half dozen young protesters were shooting Kalashnikovs into the air from the square in front of the building.
Some 200 elite police forces tried to push back the crowd, but were forced back toward the White House. The protesters appeared to be leaderless, and even some of them drunk, after at least 10 opposition leaders were arrested overnight, according to an opposition lawmaker.
The unrest — which also broke out for a second day in the western town of Talas and spread to the southern city Naryn — has threatened the relative stability of this mountainous former Soviet nation seen by both Russia and the U.S. as a strategic neighbor to Afghanistan.
Some 5,000 protesters seized Naryn's regional administration building, while thousands more stormed a police headquarters in Talas, where on Tuesday protesters held the regional governor hostage in his office. Witnesses said snipers were positioned atop nearby buildings Wednesday, and dozens of riot police officers with AK-47s were gathering outside the Talas police station.
The once-fractious opposition — galvanized by the growing public dissent under the increasingly authoritarian President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and anger over massive utility increases that went into effect Jan. 1 — has vowed not to be intimidated by the crack down.
"We don't want this rotten power," protester Makhsat Talbadyev said, as he and other protesters in Bishkek waved opposition party flags and chanted: "Bakiyev out!"
At least 10 opposition leaders were arrested overnight and were being held at the security services headquarters in Bishkek, opposition lawmaker Irina Karamushkina said. "Authorities chose terror as a response" to popular protests, she said.
The prime minister accused the opposition of provoking the violence in the mountainous former Soviet republic of 5 million people, which hosts a U.S. air base that supports military operations in neighboring Afghanistan.
"What kind of opposition is this? They are just bandits," Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov said.
Hundreds of protesters overran the government building Tuesday on Talas' main square. They were initially dispersed by baton-wielding police, but then fought through tear gas and flash grenades to regroup, burning police cars and hurling stones and Molotov cocktails.
Usenov said Tuesday's violence in Talas had left 85 officers injured and 15 unaccounted for.
The president, Bakiyev, came to power after spearheading 2005 street protests dubbed the Tulip Revolution, which ousted his predecessor while accusing him of corruption, cronyism and cracking down on the opposition.
Five years later, Bakiyev is facing similar accusations from an opposition that says he has sacrificed democratic standards to maintain peace while consolidating power in the hands of his brothers and son.
Authorities over the past two years have clamped down on free media, and opposition activists say they have routinely been subjected to physical intimidation and targeted by politically motivated criminal investigations.
Associated Press Writer Leila Saralayeva contributed to this report.
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