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Kyrgyzstan President Disputes Interim Government’s Claim to Rule

April 8, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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An interim government in Kyrgyzstan said it will rule for six months following a bloody uprising on Wednesday. Judy Woodruff talks to journalist Dalton Bennett in Bishkek about the attempts to oust the president.
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JIM LEHRER: The situation in Kyrgyzstan remained unsettled today. The opposition claimed it was in charge, but the country’s president insisted he had not given up.

The outcome in the Central Asian nation worried officials in Washington because of a key American air base located there.

Judy Woodruff has the story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The scenes of yesterday’s chaos in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, became sites of curiosity today for onlookers, young and old.

But, late in the day, crowds took flight as the sounds of renewed gunfire were heard across the city.

Dalton Bennett, a freelance journalist and contributor to “The Atlantic,” spoke earlier from Bishkek via Skype.

DALTON BENNETT, freelance journalist: We hear intermittent gunshots. The last one we heard was about an hour ago. But there was rumors of clashes with militia and — and looters. But, at this moment, there’s a huge air of uncertainty that exists.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Earlier, fires were left to burn out on their own, with no sign of fire crews to extinguish them. And the shells of military vehicles littered the city.

Special military units opened fire on protesters yesterday. The health ministry reported at least 74 killed and 400 hurt. The opposition claimed many more dead. Hospitals treated an influx of patients today, many with gunshot wounds.

MAN (through translator): The government has changed, and I hope it will be a better one. The blood was not shed in vain. What I can’t understand is why they started shooting at people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Overnight, the private residence of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was looted and burned. The kitchen was ransacked and books lay scattered across the library. Bakiyev fled the capital, and was said to be in his stronghold in the south.

Still, he told a Russian radio station: “I don’t acknowledge any defeat. I do not yet intend to resign my authority as president.”

But, back at the parliament building, Roza Otunbayeva announced she was the leader of an interim government, and she urged Bakiyev to resign.

ROZA OTUNBAYEVA, leader, Interim Government of Kyrgyzstan: Certainly, we want to locate him, and we want to negotiate with him, negotiate just regarding the resignation, not about other things. And, so, the appeal for, like, now, ex-speaker appeal that he should resign — his business is finished in Kyrgyzstan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the new interim defense minister made this pledge to the people of Kyrgyzstan.

ISMAIL ISAKOV, defense minister, Interim Government of Kyrgyzstan (through translator): The armed forces will not be used to resolve internal issues. This is very important. Why? Personnel of the special units and personnel of the armed forces were used against civilians in the cities of Bishkek, Talas, and other places. This will not happen in the future.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Throngs of people converged on the central square in Bishkek today. They ripped up white material to wear as armbands to show support for the interim government.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was the first foreign leader to recognize that government, but he also denied that Russia had anything to do with the turmoil.

Alisher Khamidov is from Kyrgyzstan originally and teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He said Russia has significant leverage over its Central Asian neighbor.

ALISHER KHAMIDOV, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies: Russia has long been trying to keep Kyrgyzstan within its orbit of influence. And, so, the Russians, their immediate goal is to see stability in their — in the country which they consider as an important ally. The longer-term Russian goal is to see Kyrgyzstan be closer to Russia geopolitically. And they want the U.S. base out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That U.S. air base just outside Bishkek stopped humanitarian missions on Wednesday and suspended other trips.

Manas Air Base is a key transit point for troops and supplies flying in and out of Afghanistan. Today, there were unconfirmed reports the new Kyrgyz government aims to close the base or shorten the length of the lease.

In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said it was all premature speculation.

P.J. CROWLEY, U.S. assistant secretary of state for public affairs: I think we are getting way ahead of ourselves. You know, we have an existing agreement with the government of Kyrgyzstan. It is an important transit center. You know, it contributes significantly to stability within the region, including Afghanistan. It is — it continues to operate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, late today, a White House statement appealed for calm in Kyrgyzstan and looked forward to a renewal of the democratic path.