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Kyrgyzstan opposition says president is out

Kyrgyzstan’s opposition leaders and its elected but on-the-run president issued competing claims to power Thursday, as unrest and confusion roiled the Central Asian republic that is home to an air base key to U.S. operations in nearby Afghanistan.

In the capital, Bishkek, pocked with looted and burned buildings, opposition leader and lawmaker Roza Otunbayeva declared parliament dissolved and promised to govern for six months until elections are held. She said President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was no longer in charge.

“His business in Kyrgyzstan is finished,” she said.

But Bakiyev, who is believed to have fled to the country’s south with a security detail, gave a radio interview from hiding and asserted that he remained the legal head of state.

“I don’t admit defeat in any way,” he said, but acknowledged he didn’t “have any real levers of power.”

It was unclear whether Bakiyev retained enough support to challenge the de facto government’s grip on the country.

The violence has sparked concern in Washington. The Pentagon said it had suspended some flights out of the Manas air base, which it leases from the Kyrgyz government.

The suspensions “have not had a significant impact on support to operations in Afghanistan,” a Pentagon spokesman, Maj. Shawn Turner said in response to an e-mail query. “We are hopeful that we will be able to resume full operations very soon, but it is important to remember that we have multiple means of providing support to our forces in Afghanistan.”

Manas has been an important transit point for supplying U.S. and some NATO troops in Afghanistan, and the Obama administration lobbied last year for a one-year extension to its lease, which expires in July.

Otunbayeva said Thursday that a change in government would have no effect on the Manas deal in the short term. But some opposition figures have been critical of the U.S. military presence, and Otunbayeva, a former foreign minister, said that a new government would review the deal.

“It will take time for us to understand and fix the situation,” she said.

The mixed message created an impression for some observers that Bakiyev’s removal would tilt Kyrgyzstan closer to Russia.

The U.S., Russia and China all vie for influence in the region, and Russia also rents a military base in the country. While the White House struck an officially neutral tone in connection with the power struggle, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin telephoned the opposition to offer assistance, Russian news reports said. In her news conference, Otunbayeva thanked Russia for “significant support.”

President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev discussed the unrest during their meeting Thursday in Prague, Czech Republic.

U.S. officials traveling with Obama dismissed suggestions that Bakiyev’s overthrow was a Russian-inspired plot aimed at closing the American base.

“This is not some anti-American coup, that we know for sure,” said Mike McFaul, special assistant to the president and senior director for Russian affairs. “This is not a sponsored-by-the-Russians coup.”

paul.richter@latimes.com


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