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Kyrgyzstan: Four Dead After Protesters Clash With Police

Kyrgyz authorities say four people have been killed and dozens more injured in clashes between police and demonstrators protesting the trial of a jailed opposition lawmaker. Official accounts say yesterday's incident occurred after demonstrators hurled stones, set fire to a government office, and attempted to seize a police station. But witnesses say protesters were peacefully marching to attend the trial when police opened fire on the crowd.

Prague, 18 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- At least four protesters were killed and dozens more injured in the southern Kyrgyz province of Jalal-Abad yesterday when supporters of parliamentary deputy Azimbek Beknazarov clashed with police.

There are conflicting accounts of the deadly Sunday confrontation. Government officials say the demonstrators precipitated the violence, while the protesters say the police initiated the attacks.

Speaking at a press conference this afternoon, Kyrgyz Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev relayed the casualty toll.

"To date, according to the latest information, 15 injured people were brought to the district hospital, and four of them died. On the side of law enforcement, 47 policemen were injured."

Bakiev accused the 2,000 protesters of "provoking mass disorder" and said law enforcement officials were forced to fire in self-defense when the demonstrations turned violent. He said one person died as a result of a knife wound and another after being hit with a brick.

Speaking earlier today on national television, Interior Minister Temirbek AkmatAliyev said protesters threw stones at police, tried to seize a local police station, and set fire to a government office.

AkmatAliyev accused "opposition and human rights activists" for the unrest. "We are dealing with an attempt to topple the authorities," the interior minister said. "The opposition has embarked on a course of political extremism."

Participants in the demonstration, however, tell another story. Residents of the southern village of Kyzyl-Tuu were marching to the village of Kerben when they were blocked by special OMON police troops who demanded they turn back. Local officials likewise urged the demonstrators to return home. When the protesters refused, witnesses say, the OMON opened fire.

Nurbek Nurmamatov, who was among the protesters, spoke with RFE/RL.

"We were marching peacefully when two buses from the police arrived. The police wanted us to turn back. There was a colonel who said we should turn back, saying that our action was unlawful. We answered that we wanted to go to the village of Kerben to hold a peaceful picket. Then the head of the [district] administration said we should turn back. He added that if we didn't obey within 15 minutes, he could not protect us."

Nurmamatov says the demonstrators refused to turn back. The police then surrounded the group and opened fire. The protesters responded by throwing stones.

The case of opposition lawmaker Beknazarov has sparked numerous demonstrations and hunger strikes since his arrest in January. He stands charged of abuse of power while serving as a district prosecutor in the Jalal-Abad region. His supporters, however, say his arrest is politically motivated and likely tied to his criticism of a number of government policies, including a border agreement with China he said gave up too much land.

Prosecutors at Beknazarov's three-day trial in Kerben last week demanded a seven-year prison sentence. The ruling was expected to be announced today, although no details have been issued.

Interior Minister AkmatAliyev said a number of protest organizers have already been identified, including the head of the Human Rights Movement of Kyrgyzstan, Tursunbek Akunov.

The minister also ordered 1,000 police troops to travel to Jalal-Abad to quell any further unrest. He said, "A well thought-out and mastered scheme to destabilize the situation is being used [in the province], and that is why we are taking measures to prevent such developments in the future."

(Naryn Idinov of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)