BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan – Riot police broke up a small opposition rally in the capital Wednesday and the new interior minister warned that authorities may use force to restore order — signs of the government's determination to keep protests in southern Kyrgyzstan from spreading north.
"Our primary task is to restore constitutional order in all regions, but strictly in accordance with the constitution," Interior Minister Keneshbek Dushebayev (search) said. "The law gives us every right to take action, including by using physical force, special means and firearms."
The new top police official spoke hours after President Askar Akayev (search) fired his predecessor and the chief prosecutor over unrest in the south, where opposition demonstrators have seized control of several key government buildings and kept up pressure for the president to resign over alleged vote fraud in recent parliamentary elections.
Dushebayev emphasized that "we will never shoot law-abiding, peaceful citizens; women, children and old people."
But he said opposition forces in the south had broken many laws, and vowed that in restoring order, "We are going to use the whole arsenal of legally available means."
Dushebayev, the former police chief in the capital of Bishkek, was named interior minister after Akayev fired Bakirdin Subanbekov (search).
Dushebayev was instrumental in preventing protests from swelling in the capital in the last few weeks following parliamentary elections on Feb. 27 and March 13 that the opposition, the United States, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation (search) in Europe said were seriously flawed.
Akayev, 60, is prohibited from seeking another term, but the opposition has accused him of manipulating the parliamentary vote to gain a compliant legislature that would amend the constitution to allow a third term. Akayev has denied that.
Akayev also fired the chief prosecutor over the unrest in the south, where protesters took over government buildings in two of seven regional capitals, including the city of Osh, and a number of smaller areas this week.
In Bishkek, about 200 riot police encircled protesters calling for Akayev's ouster, scuffling with those who resisted and locking elbows to force about 100 demonstrators out of the central square. Police appeared to detain about 20-30 people, dragging some away.
Among those taken into custody were Bolotbek Maripov, who ran unsuccessfully against Akayev's daughter in the disputed February parliamentary elections that have plunged the Central Asian nation into crisis, and Edil Baisalov, head of a prominent non-governmental organization that monitored the voting.
Baisalov linked the breakup of the Bishkek protest to the appointment of Dushebayev, calling him "a real hard-liner."
"The tolerance is being scaled down," he told The Associated Press by cell phone from a police station where he was taken.
In a sign that the opposition was trying to consolidate its forces, a losing parliamentary candidate from the northwestern town of Talas, Ravshan Jeyenbekov, said he was bringing supporters to Bishkek to support the protests.
Kyrgyzstan's political culture is heavily clan-based, and Akayev has strong support in his native north. If the fractured opposition can carry mass protests north across the mountain range bisecting the country and toward Bishkek, tensions could explode in a strategically important country where both the United States and Russia have military bases.
Prime Minister Nikolai Tanayev was planning to visit Osh "to look for someone constructive to talk to," Akayev spokesman Abdil Seghizbayev said, but he stressed there would be no talks with "criminal groups that are controlling the situation there." The opposition has been rejecting talks if they don't include Akayev.
A government official said on condition of anonymity that Tanayev would be in Osh on Thursday.
Seghizbayev said that officially, Subanbekov and Prosecutor-General Myktybek Abdyldayev were dismissed at their own request, but that the action was linked "to the events in the south and their poor work on preventing those events."
Activists expanded their grip over the south on Tuesday, seizing the headquarters of the Kadamjay district administration in the Batken region town of Pulgon.
U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said the United States was "concerned about the unrest in southern Kyrgyzstan."
"We continue to urge the government to practice restraint. We condemn the use of force by any side and the seizure and destruction of government property," he said in a statement.
The OSCE chairman, Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel, offered Tuesday to help bring an end to the tension. The chairman's envoy, Alojz Peterle, was expected in Bishkek late Wednesday to seek a platform for negotiations, the OSCE office in Bishkek said.
In Jalal-Abad — the epicenter of protest — about 1,000 opposition supporters rallied outside the opposition-controlled regional administration headquarters on Wednesday, shouting "Akayev, out!" and holding banners calling for his resignation.
"Akayev doesn't care about the people," said Kamal Zakirov, 76, a retired carpenter. "He should leave office peacefully."
Akayev was long regarded as the most reform-minded leader in ex-Soviet Central Asia, but in recent years he has shown an increasingly authoritarian bent. In 2002, his reputation was tarnished after police killed six demonstrators who were protesting the arrest of an opposition lawmaker.