World

Kyrgyz police storm energy price protest

Baton-wielding police clubbed their way through crowds of protesters in a provincial town in Kyrgyzstan on Tuesday, firing tear gas and flash grenades to disperse an anti-government demonstration in the impoverished former Soviet nation.

Batons, tear gas used to disperse demonstrators in provincial town of Talas

Kyrgyz police block off a government building before clashes with protesters in the town of Talas, Kyrgyzstan, on Tuesday. ((Fergana.ru Information Agency/Associated Press))

Baton-wielding police dispersed an anti-government demonstration in former Soviet Kyrgyzstan on Tuesday, but protesters fought through tear gas and flash grenades to regroup, burning police cars and hurling stones and Molotov cocktails.

By late Tuesday, hundreds of protesters angry over rising heat and power prices had overrun a government office on the main square of Talas, a town of 30,000 people about 200 kilometres west of the capital, Bishkek — just hours after police had forced them out of the area.

The clashes began after the demonstrators in the impoverished Central Asian nation assembled on the central square armed with rocks and flammable liquids, residents told The Associated Press by telephone. Some of the protesters gathered at the local police station and threw Molotov cocktails at President Kurmanbek Bakiyev's portraits.

Opposition supporters burn a billboard displaying Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev during a rally in the northwestern town of Talas on Tuesday. ((Reuters))

Special forces stormed the square and government office, freeing a regional governor who had been taken hostage by the demonstrators. But the forces quickly lost control as the crowd swelled. Toward nightfall, the protesters thinned out.

But many of the demonstrators returned to the square to hurl stones and Molotov cocktails at police, setting fire to police cars and causing chaos. 

During a visit to the country on Saturday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon repeatedly criticized Kyrgyzstan for its violations of human rights, a strong rebuke to the country once regarded as an "island of democracy" among the unstable former Soviet republics of Central Asia.

More rallies are planned across the country on Wednesday, and analysts said the unrest could spread.

Government threatens repercussions

The government warned of "severe" repercussions, and the main opposition party said U.S. and Russian diplomats should urge the government to refrain from violence.

Interior Ministry spokesman Rakhmatillo Akhmedov in Bishkek confirmed to The Associated Press that police had used tear gas and said several officers were injured by stones in Talas. The ministry insisted the situation in the town had been brought under control.

The protests happened in Talas, a town of 30,000 people located 200 kilometres of the capital city Bishkek.

A correspondent for the local affiliate of U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Talas said one person was shot with a rubber bullet fired from inside the police precinct.

In Bishkek on Tuesday, security forces stormed the home of Almazbek Atambayev, the country's most popular opposition politician and former presidential candidate, who had barricaded himself inside.

A fellow opposition leader, Asel Kudoranova, said Atambayev was told he was being arrested because he was suspected of fomenting the unrest in Talas. At the time of arrest, Kudoranova was with Atambayev, whose home was surrounded by a cordon of police — and beyond them around 100 of his supporters.

Other opposition activists were arrested in the capital, according to local reports. Access to the internet was disabled but it was unclear how far the electronic disruption reached.

Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov said about 100 policemen had been dispatched to Talas to serve as backup for local forces.

"I urge the organizers of these actions to desist from what they are doing," Usenov said. "For those that do not listen, measures will be severe."

Opposition strengthening

Kyrgyzstan, a mountainous country of five million people, hosts a U.S. air base that supports military operations in neighbouring Afghanistan and serves as an important transit point for coalition troops and supplies.

Since coming to power on a wave of street protests in 2005, Bakiyev has ensured a measure of stability, but many observers say he has done so at the expense of democratic standards.

Over the past two years, Kyrgyz authorities 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.

Anti-government forces have been in disarray until recently, but widespread anger over soaring utility bills has galvanized the fractious opposition.

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