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Thursday, November 02, 2006

Thousands protest against Kyrgyz president

BISHKEK, Nov 2 (Reuters) - Thousands of protesters massed in Kyrgyzstan's capital on Thursday demanding the resignation of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who they say has backtracked on promises of democratic reforms.

Police held back crowds waving red opposition flags outside parliament and chanting "Bakiyev resign". The demonstrators then marched to Ala-Too Square which holds thousands of people.

The impoverished former Soviet republic has teetered on the brink of political crisis since Bakiyev came to power in 2005 after riots ousted his long-serving predecessor, Askar Akayev.

Bakiyev won a landslide election victory but his popularity has plummeted since. The opposition accuse him of presiding over corruption and failing to raise living standards in this mainly Muslim nation of 5.2 million.

Police said that 5,000 to 6,000 people had gathered in the central square although a Reuters reporter at the scene estimated there could be three times that number.

"Bakiyev was elected to carry out reforms. He has done nothing in a year and a half," one of the main opposition leaders, Omurbek Tekebaev, told the demonstrators. "We didn't simply elect him, we needed him to make reforms."

The crowd chanted back: "Kyrgyzstan, Kyrgyzstan."

Many of the protesters wore opposition red scarves tied around their necks or arms. Riot police wearing tin helmets and carrying truncheons and plastic shields looked on.

The U.S. embassy warned American citizens to avoid the areas of the protest, saying peaceful protests could turn violent. The Russian news agency Interfax quoted a Russian diplomat as saying the embassy had emergency evacuation plans.


Kyrgyzstan is home to both U.S. and Russian airbases and outsiders are watching for signs of civil unrest they worry could spread to neighbouring countries in Central Asia.

Bakiyev met opposition leaders earlier this week and agreed to alter the Kyrygz constitution to water down the president's powers and hand more influence to parliament which is dominated by the opposition.

On Thursday, in an apparent attempt to head off civil unrest, he told parliament he would bring forward the presentation of the new constitution to next Monday.

"I'm ready to discuss suggestions from parliament, because the arguments are centred around only one article: What responsibilities will lie with the President and with the Parliament," Bakiyev said.

He left the parliament building before the protests started.

The constitutional concessions were not enough to satisfy the opposition. They say Bakiyev has delivered too little too late and want him to resign. (Additional reporting by James Kilner in Moscow)
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