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Friday, March 31, 2006

Hundreds rally in Kyrgyz protest, tension high

BISHKEK, March 31 (Reuters) - Hundreds of men marched through Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek on Friday in a brief but chaotic protest sparked by the authorities' stand-off with an influential businessman seeking a seat in parliament.

The protest began after election authorities refused to register Ryspek Akmatbayev, who has risen to prominence since last year's coup which ousted long-serving leader Askar Akayev, as a candidate for a parliamentary by-election on April 9.

The 1,500-strong crowd, waving red banners, whistling and shouting "Hurrah, Ryspek!", arrived from Akmatbayev's constituency town in eastern Kyrgyzstan and marched towards a government building on the main city square.

President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who came to power after the coup, appeared before the crowd escorted by more than 100 security guards and urged them to settle grievances through the courts.

"Go home, please. Do not disturb the city," he told them through a loud-speaker from a distance. Many in the crowd nodded and most protesters left shortly afterwards as troops guarding Bakiyev's office looked on.

But tension in Bishkek remained high and police remained on high alert after protesters threatened to bring more people from the provinces to hold more rallies.

Bishkek was the scene of chaotic protests in March 2005 when demonstrations against a flawed election turned violent and led to Akayev fleeing to Russia before a mob ransacked his offices, in contrast to peaceful demonstrations in Ukraine and Georgia.

The Central Election Commission annulled Akmatbayev's bid on Thursday on the grounds that he had not lived in Kyrgyzstan for the last five consecutive years as required by law.

Akmatbayev -- whose brother, parliamentarian Tynychbek Akmatbayev, was shot dead last year during prison riots -- was tried for murder and acquitted earlier this year.

An influential businessman, Akmatbayev has accused the authorities of having criminal links and blamed top government officials for killing his brother.

Since Akayev's overthrow, the impoverished Central Asian country has been unsettled by political instability, a wave of organised crime and high-profile assassinations.

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