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Kyrgyzstan: Reporter's Notebook -- Witness To The Uprising

Protestors toppled the government of Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev with surprising ease RFE/RL’s correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch arrived in Bishkek early on 24 March, just hours before crowds of protestors started gathering near the White House. He covered the storming of the government's headquarters and witnessed some of the plundering that spread throughout the Kyrgyz capital for two consecutive nights. Here is his account of the events leading up to the fall of President Askar Akaev's regime and of the chaos that followed.

Prague, 5 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- It all began with what looked like just another peaceful anti-government protest.

That Thursday morning (24 March) some 2,000 people had congregated in front of Doctor Jenshibek Nazaraliev’s drug rehabilitation clinic to demand that President Askar Akaev resign.

A fierce critic of Akaev’s regime and a prominent public figure in Kyrgyzstan, Nazaraliev had called for the rally to protest against the detention of a few demonstrators the day before in central Bishkek.
The crowd chanted slogans, including “Together we’re strong! Akayev go! Police join us! Together we’re strong.”

Apart from an army helicopter occasionally flying over the crowd, security forces kept a low profile. The few visible policemen were obviously more interested in regulating traffic a few meters away than preventing passers-by from listening to opposition leaders.

The crowd chanted slogans, including “Together we’re strong! Akayev go! Police join us! Together we’re strong.”

With the rally under way, Interior Minister Keneshbek Duishebaev ventured into the crowd, accompanied by just a couple of bodyguards. Ignoring the demonstrators’ hissing, he climbed onto the roof of Nazaraliev’s clinic to urge the protestors to show restraint and not disturb public order.

Duishebaev looked confident behind his sunglasses. The day before, he had called upon protestors who had taken control of local administration buildings in Kyrgyzstan’s southern regions to surrender, or face prosecution.

In all likelihood, Duishebaev did not suspect that five hours later the government he was representing would collapse like a house of cards. Neither did the demonstrators, nor even the leaders of the opposition.

Around midday, the crowd moved to Alatoo Square, a few dozen meters away from the White House -- as the headquarters of the government and the presidential administration are known in Bishkek.

By this time, the number of protesters had swollen to an apparent 5,000 or 6,000.

Nearby, hundreds of bystanders were quietly watching as helmeted police officers armed with clubs and shields were being deployed around the White House. In nearby streets, life was going on undisturbed. Housewives, peddlers, or just people taking a stroll, were all going about their business.

Back on Alatoo Square a group of approximately 500 people, most of them young, stood out among the crowd of demonstrators. Armed with makeshift shields and wooden sticks, they looked particularly eager to confront the police.

A few minutes later, the first incident broke out at the far end of the square. Dozens of white-capped individuals armed with clubs rushed at the crowd and started beating protestors. The onslaught was swiftly repelled and the attackers quickly withdrew, leaving three of them lying in pools of blood.

Opposition claims that the assaulters were agitators hired by the government from local sports clubs and jailhouses have proved impossible to verify.

Akaev and his supporters, in turn, would later accuse the opposition of bringing hundreds of protestors from the country’s south in the days that preceded the Bishkek uprising.

Subsequent accounts indeed indicate the hardcore of the 24 March demonstrators consisted of impoverished southerners incensed by reports of the wealth allegedly amassed by Akaev and his family.

Damira Ulukbekova, a leader of Kyrgyzstan’s anti-Akayev KelKel youth organization, told RFE/RL that “it seems to me that those people who carried out the revolution were from the regions. The bulk of them came from the regions, this is something we cannot deny.”

The violence quickly escalated. Infuriated by this first incident, a hardcore of demonstrators began breaking up the square’s paving slabs. They then marched on the thin police cordon.

New clashes erupted and, for a brief instant, it looked as if the security forces had the upper hand. But after a few minutes, the protestors succeeded in making their adversaries hastily retreat into the White House’s compound. Unable to push back the mass of people, police officers and Interior Ministry troops fled in panic, leaving helmets, shields, and batons behind them.

With their confidence growing, the attackers flung open the heavy doors of the White House and quickly occupied its seven stories. A few minutes later, protestors threw heaps of official documents, furniture, clocks, and television sets through the building’s smashed windows.

Caught unaware by the developments, opposition leaders started to give improvised press briefings at the foot of the White House.

Among them was Kurmanbek Bakiev, the former prime minister that would hours later become Kyrgyzstan’s interim president. He said that "we didn't have the slightest idea things would turn out this way. Just today, this morning, we had no idea that people would take over the White House."

A few meters away, Akaev’s one-time ally Topchubek Turgunaliev was urging the crowd now in control of the government building to stop the plundering. He told the protestors that "there should be no looting. Do not steal anything. Do not smash things because this building belongs to the people, including you. This wealth should be protected because tomorrow it will be occupied by those [leaders] whom you want to sit there."

Meanwhile, on the main steps leading up to the White House, a small group of opposition activists demanded the release of Feliks Kulov. At the time, Kulov, a former interior minister and vice-president, was serving a 10-year prison sentence for alleged embezzlement.

One hour later, Kulov would emerge from his prison cell outside Bishkek. In comments made to RFE/RL inside parliament that same night, he explained why he had agreed to leave prison:

“I left my cell not with a view to heading [the opposition]," he said. "I left with a view to not letting public order deteriorate. This is my main duty. Why did I leave prison? Legally I had no right to do so. For me to do so there should have been a court decision. But when this huge crowd congregated around the prison to set me free, the head of the [Interior Ministry’s] main directorate for the implementation of court sentences [eds: GUIN] came to me and said: ‘Go outside, otherwise they will loot the prison.’ You know this notion of force majeure [eds. superior force] that exists in the criminal code? It is on the basis of this that the decision was made to set me free. As soon as a reverse decision is made I will return to my cell.”

By the time Kulov was out of prison and entrusted with the task of restoring order in Bishkek, crowds of looters began targeting food stores, supermarkets, cafes, and computer shops in central Bishkek.

With police nowhere to be seen, many city residents joined the plunderers for a night of Bacchanalia. They took away refrigerators, washing machines, computers, foodstuffs, and any other valuable goods they could lay their hands on.

Inside the White House, the scene was equally chaotic.

With its smashed windows and heaps of broken furniture obstructing the corridors, Akayev’s former headquarters was a picture of desolation. Despite the presence of guards inside and outside the building, small groups of looters could be seen quietly taking away computer equipment.

On the following morning, a pale Kulov appeared on national television, now in control of the opposition. He made an impassioned plea to his fellow countrymen, urging them to help him restore law and order in the capital:

“I call on parents. Tonight there were many children in the streets. I am asking you, dear parents. Keep your children at home, especially young boys, so that they do not go out in the streets at night. Should we be forced to detain them, it would be very unpleasant for you. Therefore, I am asking you to not let them get mixed up in some nasty business, to not let them end up in court,” he said.

Kulov would eventually prove Kyrgyzstan’s providential man. In less than 48 hours, he succeeded in rallying the demoralized Bishkek security forces and setting up citizens’ militias, thus averting further chaos in the city.

Kulov resigned from his post of provisional security coordinator a week later, claiming he had fulfilled his mission and would now await a court acquittal.

Earlier this week, he said he would run as a candidate in the 26 June presidential election.

Kulov also cautioned against the possibility of a “counter-revolution,” saying groups and individuals unhappy with the new government had managed to steal weapons during the 24-25 March rioting.

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