BISHKEK, KYRGYZSTAN // Twelve people died in riots that swept through the Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan today, a police official said on condition of anonymity. Violence erupted in this strategic Central Asian nation as thousands of protesters angry over the arrests of opposition leaders chased and beat up police officers in the capital and vowed to seize the main government building. Police used rubber bullets, tear gas and concussion grenades in Bishkek to crack down on the crowds of jubilant young men clad in black, who were disarming officers and seizing their lorries and armoured personnel carriers. About 150 elite police forces stood guard outside the government headquarters, known as the White House.
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 US as a strategic neighbour to Afghanistan. Some 5,000 protesters seized Naryn's regional administration building, while thousands more stormed a police headquarters in Talas, where protesters held the regional governor hostage in his office yesterday.
Witnesses said snipers were positioned atop nearby buildings today, and dozens of riot police officers with AK-47s were gathering outside the Talas police station. The once-fractious opposition - galvanised by the growing public dissent under the president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, and angry over massive utility increases that came into effect on January 1 - have vowed not to be intimidated by the clamp 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, 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 five million people, which hosts a US airbase that supports military operations in neighbouring Afghanistan.
"What kind of opposition is this? They are just bandits," the prime minister, Daniyar Usenov, said. Yesterday, hundreds of protesters overran the government building 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. Mr Usenov said yesterday's violence in Talas had left 85 officers injured and 15 unaccounted for.
The president, Mr Bakiyev, came to power on a wave of street protests in 2005, and recently has been accused of sacrificing democratic standards to maintain peace. Over the past two years, authorities have clamped down on free media. Opposition activists say they have routinely been subjected to physical intimidation and targeted by politically motivated criminal investigations. * AP