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Coup Probe Begins As Kyrgyz Protest Continues --> Protesters amid the tents on Alatoo Square in downtown Bishkek on November 3 (AFP) November 4, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Kyrgyzstan's law-enforcement agencies said amid continuing antigovernment protests today that they have opened a criminal investigation into allegations that senior opposition leaders are plotting a coup.

Protests continued in Bishkek and in other cities to demand that President Kurmanbek Bakiev implement long-awaited constitutional reforms or step down.

But the crowd at the downtown square in Bishkek was estimated at just several thousand people, about one-fifth of the turnout on the first day of the demonstration.

The head of the Bishkek branch of the National Security Service (SNB), Oitalbek Osmovov, announced today that authorities have opened a criminal probe based on Prime Minister Feliks Kulov's claim in parliament on November 3 that he had evidence of opposition schemes to seize power by force.

"The Prosecutor-General's Office has reacted, and [on November 3] it opened a criminal case under Article 295 [of the Criminal Code], which deals with attempts at forcibly, illegally seizing power," Osmovov told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. "The SNB has been put in charge of the investigation. It must now investigate."

Focus Still Unclear

Whether any particular opposition leader will be targeted in that investigation remains unclear. In remarks carried by Western news agencies today, Osmonov suggested that would be the case.

In his appearance before lawmakers on November 3, Kulov played telephone conversations he said implicated senior opposition leaders who have been active in the ongoing public demonstrations to force the government's hand on stalled reforms.

But a spokesman for the Prosecutor-General's Office, Toktogul Kakchekeev, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that it is too early in the investigation to focus on any specific opposition leader.

"On the basis [of what Prime Minister Kulov said in parliament], we opened a criminal investigation into the [content of the telephone recordings], but not into any particular [opposition] lawmaker, or any other individual," Kakchekeev said. "This will be investigated later, only after an assessment of the facts."

'No Prosecution'

In comments to Kyrgyzstan's independent KOORT television channel on November 3, the second day of the Bishkek protest, Kulov pledged not to prosecute the leaders of the For Reforms opposition movement whose voices were said to have constituted the basis of his allegations before parliament.

Kulov claimed the recordings are evidence that the opposition has detailed plans to seize government buildings in Bishkek and a number of regional cities, including mayoral and Interior Ministry offices, as well as television and intelligence facilities.

For Reforms leader Omurbek Tekebaev acknowledged on November 3 that the voices on the recordings were genuine. But he said the tapes had been heavily edited so as to give the appearance that a coup was being plotted.

Another For Reforms leader, Almaz Atambaev, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that authorities are trying to frame their opponents.

"The facts are of course being distorted, grossly distorted," Atambaev said. "No expert analysis [of the tapes] has been made. The authorities are once again trying to cheat, blackmail, and frighten us. I think it will end up badly for the authorities themselves."

Three Days Of Protest

Thousands of opposition supporters have been demonstrating on Bishkek's central Alatoo Square since November 2 to demand that Bakiev and his team fulfill a pre-election pledge to usher in constitutional reforms to curtail presidential powers. They have demanded that Bakiev and his entire team -- including Prime Minister Kulov -- resign if they fail to deliver.

One opposition leader, filmmaker Dooronbek Sadirbaev, told a crowd estimated at around 3,000 in downtown Bishkek that he has initiated a signature drive to demand Bakiev's impeachment.

The protest kicked off on the afternoon of November 2 at Ataloo Square, which abuts the government headquarters. Upward of 14,000 demonstrators were estimated to have participated on the first day, with thousands returning the next day and smaller rallies breaking out in a number of regional cities.

Push Comes To Shove

Before his election in July 2005, Bakiev and lawmakers reached a tentative agreement on the need to bolster parliament's prerogatives and curb those of the presidency.

But more than a dozen different proposals have since emerged, and critics have accused Bakiev of a climbdown in an attempt to retain key powers.

Opposition leaders say they expect much larger demonstrations on November 6, when Bakiev has promised to deliver his own counterproposal on constitutional reforms to parliament.

Foreign Visit

Members of an official delegation that is accompanying German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on his weeklong tour of Central Asian capitals saw the demonstrations firsthand today.

Prime Minister Kulov (left) with German Foreign Minister Steinmeier in Bishkek on November 4

Opposition leader and former parliamentary speaker Tekebaev spoke briefly with the German visitors.

"We're facing a very difficult task," Tekebaev reportedly told them. "Central Asia lacks a party-based parliamentary form of democracy. We have overcome not only the resistance put up by our governments, but also the political psychology of the entire region. The example of European countries, of Germany in particular, inspires us."

Steinmeier held talks today in Bishkek with Bakiev and Kulov. He also met with representatives of the opposition at the German Embassy.

Germany's dpa news agency reports Steinmeier called upon both parties to show restraint.

Germany is in line to assume the rotating EU Presidency on January 1, and has pledged to make relations with Central Asia a priority of its presidency and introduce a unified EU policy on the region. Steinmeier has said that policy will focus on securing a share in Central Asian energy resources and promoting democracy and stability.

Bakiev and Kulov emerged atop the government following the ouster in March 2005 of longtime President Askar Akaev, who fled to Russia after weeks of sporadic protests when hundreds of demonstrators stormed the government facilities in the capital.

The November 2 demonstration attracted the largest crowd of protesters in recent Kyrgyz history, and a heavy police presence was on hand to guard against violence.

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