The deposed president of Kyrgyzstan left the country Thursday for neighbouring Kazakhstan, allaying fears of new violence in the Central Asian nation that hosts a key U.S. military base supporting the war in Afghanistan.
Kazakhstan said the presidents of the United States, Russia and Kazakhstan helped arrange for Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev to leave the country. It called Bakiyev's move an "important step toward stabilization of situation."
Kyrgyzstan's interim rulers said that Bakiyev signed a formal letter of resignation before boarding the plane. Witnesses say Bakiyev flew out from the southern city of Jalal-Abad in a military transport aircraft.
Bakiyev's departure follows the provisional government's warning that he should either quickly leave the country or face a trial.
"He had to leave the country because he was afraid of people's justice," deputy head of the interim government, Omurbek Tekebayev, told The Associated Press.
Bakiyev was driven from the capital, Bishkek, on April 7 after a protest boiled over into gunfire; protesters then stormed government buildings. At least 83 people died in the violence.
Bakiyev's efforts to gather support in Kyrgyzstan's south, his clan power base, suffered a severe blow earlier Thursday when he tried to speak to a rally in Osh, the region's biggest city. Within a few moments of his taking the stage, gunfire split the air and he was hustled into a car and driven away.
Witnesses said the shots came from his bodyguards who may have been frightened by a group of Bakiyev opponents who were approaching the rally.
Although there were no reports of injuries, the incident marked a humiliating setback in Bakiyev's effort to claim he is still the legitimate president.
Bakiyev had said earlier he would be willing to resign if security guarantees were given to him and close relatives. The interim authorities have offered him such guarantees but refused them for his family. Bakiyev's opponents have blamed him and his family for last week's violence but also for widespread corruption.
Another member of the interim government in Bishkek, Tobchubek Turgunaliyev, said that Bakiyev was only accompanied by his wife and two small children on a flight to Kazakhstan. Turgunaliyev told the AP that Bakiyev's former defence minister has been arrested.
A security operation is underway in the south to arrest Bakiyev's brothers, one of whom, the presidential guards chief, has been accused by the opposition of issuing an order to fire at protesters in Bishkek.
On Wednesday, Bakiyev spoke by telephone with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Putin's office didn't release any details of the conversation, but the Russian premier had earlier offered a strong backing to Bakiyev's foes.
Bakiyev's departure raised hopes for a quick settlement of the crisis in the impoverished ex-Soviet nation hosting the U.S. air base at the capital's airport. The Manas base has resumed full operations, the U.S. Embassy said in a statement Thursday. "Refuelling operations continue as usual, and the transit of troops has resumed," the embassy said.
The troop transports to and from Afghanistan had been suspended since last week, other than a brief resumption Friday to fly a few hundred troops from the base back to the U.S.
Russia, which also has an air base in Kyrgyzstan, has shown a growing impatience with the U.S. military presence in the region it considers its backyard.
Earlier Thursday, Putin had met with a member of the provisional Kyrgyz government who had come to Moscow to seek financial assistance. Russia responded with promises of $50 million US in aid and loans and 25,000 tons of fuel to help with the spring planting.