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Kyrgyz Opposition To Protest Against Government 'Repression'

Kyrgyz protests in support of opposition leader Alikbek Jekshenkulov

Kyrgyz protests in support of opposition leader Alikbek Jekshenkulov

BISHKEK (Reuters) -- Kyrgyzstan's opposition plans to mount nationwide protests against what it has described as government repression in the run-up to a presidential election.

The impoverished ex-Soviet republic has been volatile since 2005, when riots triggered by a flawed parliamentary election ousted its long-serving leader Askar Akaev and swept President Kurmanbek Bakiev to power.

Long fragmented and weak, the opposition movement was galvanized this week after one of its leaders was arrested in a murder case Bakiev's critics say was politically motivated.

"We have decided to hold political protests throughout the country...from March 27 demanding an end to political persecution," said Ismail Isakov, head of the opposition Zhany Kyrgyzstan party.

Alikbek Jekshenkulov, a former foreign minister and now a critic of Bakiev, was arrested and charged with complicity to murder this week after police said his gun had been used to kill a Turkish businessman in 2007.

'Open For Dialogue'

The opposition says that was part of Bakiev's attempts to remove potential rivals ahead of the poll.

Bakiev has denied those accusations. The government has said it is ready to resolve disagreements through talks.

"The government is open for dialogue," said Bakiev's spokesman Almaz Turdumamatov. "My personal opinion is that when the world is in crisis, one should not rock the boat."

"We are under pressure," said Temir Sariyev, head of Ak Shumkar, another opposition party. "There is no point in negotiating in these conditions."

Kyrgyzstan is a strategic nation at the center of Russian and U.S. rivalry in Central Asia, a region neighboring Afghanistan and Iran seen by Moscow as part of its sphere of interest.

The presidential election is due this year or next depending on a decision by the Constitutional Court expected over coming weeks. The uncertainty stems from a 2005 presidential poll, which was held ahead of schedule.

The 2005 riots plunged the capital, Bishkek, into chaos as angry mobs looted shops and the seat of government and forced Akaev to flee the country.

Bakiev, 59, was popular at the time of his 2005 election, which was described as free and fair by Western observers.

But the opposition now accuses him of failing to tackle corruption and crime, rigging the 2007 parliamentary poll in which his party won the majority of seats and silencing dissent.

In a move that fortified Russia's influence in the region, Kyrgyzstan said last month it would close a key U.S. military air base on its territory. It made the announcement after securing more than $2 billion in aid and credit from Moscow.