Protesters storm government buildings in Kyrgyzstan as 17,000 rally against the president

More than 17,000 protesters rallied in Kyrgyzstan on Monday, storming three government buildings and forcing security forces to flee in the latest in a wave of protests to demand the resignation of the Soviet-era leader of this mountainous Central Asian nation.

The biggest rally with about 15,000 people was in the southern city of Jalal-Abad, a local government spokesman said. There were no reports of violence Monday, a day after demonstrators burned down much of the police headquarters, freed 70 detained protesters and occupied the governor's office.

Protesters dumped stones on the runway at Jalal-Abad airport, making it difficult for security forces to rush in reinforcements to quell the protests, which some analysts have compared to peaceful revolutions that swept two other former Soviet republics over the past two years: Georgia and Ukraine.

Protests against President Askar Akayev, who has led this mainly Muslim nation for 15 years, began after parliamentary elections on Feb. 27, and intensified after subsequent run-offs, which the opposition, Europe and the United States said were seriously flawed, a charge denied by the government.

In Kyrgyzstan's second largest city of Osh on Monday, about 1,000 protesters _ armed with clubs and flammable liquid and chanting "Akayev Go!" _ took control of the governor's building. Activists had first stormed the building Friday, but were ousted by security forces Saturday before retaking it Monday.

The protesters then grew in number to about 2,000 and overran the regional police and security stations in the city, about 300 kilometers (186 miles) south of the capital Bishkek. Those buildings had been largely evacuated by officials who were anticipating the takeovers.

Protesters gathered on the city's main square and burned a billboard picture of the president.

"This is a new day in our history," said Omurbek Tekebayev, an opposition official. He said the opposition would create alternative government bodies throughout the country.

Another opposition member, Anvar Artykov, told the crowd that "Power in Osh has been taken over by people! ... I congratulate you on our victory and urge you to maintain order."

The opposition was also occupying government buildings in four other cities and towns, said Interior Ministry spokesman Nurdin Jangarayev. Hundreds were rallying Monday in at least two other towns in this nation of 5 million people, he said.

Protesters in the southern town of Toktogul held captive for a third day a district governor and a chief district prosecutor, both of whom are accused of colluding with Akayev's government, police said.

Akayev's aide Abdil Seghizbayev said security forces would not take action against the protesters, but said peace talks would only be possible after order is restored in the country.

"Neither authorities nor opposition leaders can control the crowd right now," he said. "If an (opposition) leader emerges who can control the protesters, the government will be ready to talk to him."

Kyrgyzstan's opposition parties have long been fractured and have resisted moves to unite them. With pressure on Akayev to step down, rival opposition leaders are positioning themselves to be seen as a possible successor.

Roza Otunbayeva, leader of the Ata-Jurt Movement, one of the main opposition groups, and a former foreign minister, ruled out any talks with Akayev. "We have one aim only: to oust this government. ... There is no need for talks anymore," he said.

But another opposition leader, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, said talks would be possible if Akayev attends them.

The opposition has charged that Akayev, who is prohibited from seeking another term, planned to manipulate the parliamentary vote to gain a compliant legislature that would amend the constitution to allow a third term. The 60-year-old leader has denied wanting another term.

Akayev was long regarded as the most reform-minded leader in ex-Soviet Central Asia and the country won praise for its comparative openness.

But the leader in recent years has shown increasing signs of cracking down. In 2002, his reputation was tarnished after police killed six demonstrators who were protesting the arrest of an opposition lawmaker.

U.S. State Department urged the Kyrgyz government and opposition engage in dialogue and resolve differences peacefully.


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