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Deadly Clashes Erupt in Kyrgyzstan, Site of Key U.S. Base

April 7, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Police opened fire on large groups of political protesters in Kyrgyzstan, which houses a key American air base that supports troops in Afghanistan. Gwen Ifill reports on the political unrest.
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JEFFREY BROWN: But first: Turmoil erupted today in Kyrgyzstan. Opposition leaders there said police shot and killed 100 protesters in the capital, and they claimed to have ousted the government.

Gwen Ifill has the story.

GWEN IFILL: The streets of Bishkek descended into chaos, as thousands of people marched through the city brandishing rifles. Fire consumed vehicles. And the protesters stormed government buildings and took over the state television headquarters.

At first, riot police fired rubber bullets into the air to keep the crowds at bay, but that escalated into live ammunition. Hundreds were hurt, and footage showed some of the injured being carried away.

MAN (through translator): People are unhappy. Look around here. Young people, we all are poor, no jobs. They are shooting at people, you can see for yourselves. After this, I think there will be blood for blood.

GWEN IFILL: At a news conference, the country’s prime minister said violence had broken out in other cities as well.

DANIYAR USENOV, prime minister of Kyrgyzstan (through translator): The situation in Talas yesterday was quite tense, especially in the evening. Around 7:00 p.m., there was tension. The building of the regional was attacked twice. Then it was taken over and destroyed. Everything that could have been broken was broken and then set on fire.

GWEN IFILL: Kyrgyzstan has been gripped by unrest since early March over poverty, rising prices, corruption and complaints of authoritarian rule. The opposition called nationwide protests today to defy President Kurmanbek Bakiyev.

He was swept into power in 2005 in the so-called Tulip Revolution. Later, opposition leaders announced they had formed a new government and taken over a state security headquarters. They also said President Bakiyev had fled the country.

In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said U.S. officials believe Bakiyev is still in power, but he said they are closely watching the situation.

P.J. CROWLEY, U.S. assistant secretary of state for public affairs: We have concerns about issues, you know, intimidation by the government, corruption within the government. We want to see Kyrgyzstan evolve, just as we do other countries in — in the region.

But, that said, there is a sitting government. We work closely with that government. We are allied with that government in terms of its support, you know, for international operations in — in Afghanistan.

GWEN IFILL: The Central Asian nation houses the U.S. air base at Manas, supplying operations against the Taliban in Afghanistan. It was also once part of the Soviet Union.

Horton Beebe-Center, the president of the Eurasia Foundation in Washington, said today the U.S. has worked on improving ties with Kyrgyzstan for two decades, and he expects the relationship to continue.

WILLIAM HORTON BEEBE-CENTER, president, Eurasia Foundation: The issue of the base is a crucial one, from the U.S. government’s strategic policy perspective, because it is so important to resupplying forces in Afghanistan. My guess would be that, no matter who emerges as the new leader of Kyrgyzstan, that that person will see an interest in maintaining the close alliance that Washington and Bishkek have had over the last several years.

GWEN IFILL: Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin denied Moscow played any role in today’s events. He said, “Neither Russia, nor your humble servant, nor Russian officials have any links whatsoever to these events.”

As the day wore on, more protesters arrived for treatment at local hospitals suffering from gunshot wounds. As the U.S. appealed for both sides to stand down, the situation remained tense at day’s end.