Protesters stormed the presidential compound in Kyrgyzstan on Thursday, seizing control of the main symbol of state power after clashing with riot police surrounding it during a large opposition rally.
About 1,000 protesters managed to clear riot police from their positions outside the fence protecting the building, and about half entered through the front. Others smashed windows with stones, while hundreds of police watched from outside the fence, where thousands more protesters remained. Neither side visibly carried any firearms.
The whereabouts of beleaguered President Askar Akayev were not clear, amid reports that he had left the presidential office and arrived at a Russian airbase outside Bishkek. Kurmanbek Bakiyev, one of two main opposition leaders, was with the protesters at the government building.
Protesters led the defense minister out of the building, holding him by the elbows and trying to protect him, but others threw stones at the military chief and one protester kicked him. Interior Ministry troops led other officials out, and three injured people, bandages covering their wounds, left accompanied by a doctor.
The tumultuous scene was the culmination of the first major rally in the Kyrgyz capital since opposition supporters seized control of key cities and towns in the south this week to press demands that the long-serving Akayev step down amid widespread allegations of fraud in this year's parliamentary vote.
"I am very happy because for 15 years we've been seeing the same ugly face that has been shamelessly smiling at us," said 35-year-old Abdikasim Kamalov, standing outside the building with legs planted apart, holding a red Kyrgyz flag. "We could no longer tolerate this. We want changes."
Kyrgyzstan lacks the rich energy resources or pipeline routes that have made of some of its Central Asian neighbors the focus of struggles by Russia, the US and China for regional influence. But the former Soviet republic's role as a conduit for drugs and a potential hotbed of Islamic extremism, particularly in the impoverished south, makes it volatile.
Both the US and Russia -- which is part of a six-nation military pact with Kyrgyzstan -- maintain military bases near Bishkek, and Moscow said yesterday it had increased security at its facility.
Akayev's whereabouts were not clear. He was to meet later Thursday with an envoy from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which had made overtures to help mediate the crisis.
Many of the demonstrators came from a rally on the outskirts of Bishkek, where protesters roared and clapped when an opposition activist asserted Akayev's foes would soon control the entire country.
"The people of Kyrgyzstan will not let anybody torment them," Bakiyev, who heads the People's Movement, told the crowd at the earlier rally. "We must show persistence and strength, and we will win."