BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan – President Askar Akayev's (search) government collapsed Thursday after opposition protesters took over the presidential compound and government offices, throwing computers and air conditioners out of windows in a frenzy of anger over corruption and a disputed election.
The popular uprising in this impoverished Central Asian nation of 5 million forced Akayev to flee and was breathtaking in its speed. It was also relatively bloodless with three people reported killed and dozens injured. The government was the third in a former Soviet republic — after Georgia and Ukraine (search) — to be brought down by people power over the past year and a half.
One immediate challenge for the new rulers was rampant looting in government buildings and shops in the capital, Bishkek.
Whooping and whistling protesters took over the Soviet-era presidential headquarters, and groups of them took turns sitting in Akayev's chair. Outside, people tore up portraits of Akayev and stomped on them.
"It's not the opposition that has seized power, it's the people who have taken power. The people. They have been fighting for so long against corruption, against that (Akayev) family," said opposition activist Ulan Shambetov, one of the protesters who sat in the president's chair.
The lower house of the parliament that held power before a disputed election met overnight and elected a former opposition lawmaker, Ishenbai Kadyrbekov (search), as interim president until a new presidential vote, perhaps in May or June.
But it was unclear whether that choice had legal force, and the upper house later elected prominent opposition leader Kurmanbek Bakiyev as acting prime minister — an appointment lawmaker Temir Sariyev said meant he is also acting president.
Legislators also tapped Felix Kulov, a popular opposition figure who was released from prison Thursday, to be in charge of law enforcement.
Kulov said on television Friday that he was ashamed about the looting that swept Bishkek overnight, and demanded that all law enforcement officers return to work. Many of the city's major stores were attacked and robbed, mostly by rowdy young men who roamed streets largely empty of police, and some were torched.
Kulov said that one person was found shot to death, while Sariyev said three people were killed in the disorder. "All the main stores were attacked and robbed," he said.
The Red Cross said Thursday that several dozen people were injured.
The whereabouts of the 60-year-old Akayev — who had led Kyrgyzstan since 1990, before it gained independence in the Soviet collapse — were not known. U.S. officials said they could not confirm reports by the opposition and Russian news agencies that he had left the country.
The takeover of government buildings and state television in Bishkek followed similar seizures by opposition activists in the impoverished southern region, including the nation's second-largest city, Osh. Those protests began even before the first round of parliamentary elections Feb. 27 and swelled after March 13 run-offs that the opposition said were seriously flawed.
Politics in Kyrgyzstan depends as much on clan ties as on ideology, and the fractious opposition has unified around calls for more democracy, an end to poverty and corruption, and a desire to oust Akayev.
There was no sign the new leadership would change policy toward the West or Russia. Unlike the revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, foreign policy has not been an issue.
Both the United States and Russia have military bases near Bishkek. About 1,000 U.S. troops are stationed at Manas air base outside the capital. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Thursday he didn't believe they would be adversely affected by the turmoil.
Kyrgyzstan's role as a conduit for drugs and a potential hotbed of Islamic extremism, particularly in the south, makes it volatile. There is no indication, however, that the opposition would be more amenable to Islamic fundamentalist influence than Akayev's government has been.
"The future of Kyrgyzstan should be decided by the people of Kyrgyzstan, consistent with the principles of peaceful change, of dialogue and respect for the rule of law," U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said.
Neighboring regimes in Central Asia studiously ignored Thursday's uprising but their opposition parties were jubilant, hoping the seeds of democratic change had been sown in the region. After the "Rose Revolution" in Georgia in 2003 and the "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine last year, authorities have been increasingly nervous about their grip on power.
The takeover in Kyrgyzstan began with a rally Thursday morning on the outskirts of Bishkek, where about 5,000 protesters roared and clapped when Bakiyev said they soon would control the entire country.
Interior Minister Keneshbek Dushebayev urged demonstrators to obey the law, but he said no force would be used against peaceful protesters.
About 1,000 people surged toward the building housing Akayev's offices, meeting little resistance from helmeted riot police standing next to a protective fence with truncheons and shields. About half the crowd entered through the front. Others smashed windows with stones.
Some demonstrators were injured during a clash with a group of truncheon-wielding men in civilian clothes and blue armbands — the color of Akayev's party. One protester had a serious head injury and a broken leg, and another had broken ribs, said Iskander Shamshiyev, leader of the opposition Youth Movement of Kyrgyzstan.
Hundreds of police watched from outside the fence, where thousands more protesters remained. Neither side visibly carried firearms.
Officials left through a side door, protected by Interior Ministry troops. Some camouflage-clad troops also left peacefully.
Many demonstrators wore pink or yellow headbands signifying their loyalty to the opposition — reminiscent of the orange worn by protesters who helped elect a pro-Western president in Ukraine and the rose hues worn in the Georgian revolution.
At one point, a protester charged through the square on horseback, a yellow opposition flag waving, and protesters chanted, "Akayev, go!"
Dozens of youths rampaged inside the building, some smashing furniture and looting supplies, ignoring protest organizers who urged them to stop. Broken glass littered the floors and a drugstore in the building was ransacked.
"It's the victory of the people. But now we don't know how to stop these young guys," said Noman Akabayev, an unsuccessful legislative candidate.
Several hours after the takeover, thick plumes of black smoke rose from two burning cars nearby.
After nightfall, thousands milled peacefully in Ala-Too Square outside the presidential headquarters, occasionally breaking into cheers. A large store on a main street was looted, with mostly young men carting out crates of food, juice and cookies, as well as mattresses, mirrors and coat hangers.
Kulov's release from prison could be a key element in unifying the opposition, which until now has lacked a single clear leader.
He had been serving 10 years for embezzlement and abuse of power — charges he says were fabricated by the Akayev regime. A former vice president, interior minister and mayor of Bishkek, Kulov was arrested after announcing his candidacy for president in 2000.
"It is a revolution made by the people," Kulov said on state television, adding, "Tomorrow will come, and we must decide how to live tomorrow."
Akayev was long regarded as a reform-minded leader, but in recent years he turned more authoritarian. In 2002, his reputation was tarnished after police killed six demonstrators protesting the arrest of an opposition lawmaker.
"I am very happy because for 15 years we've been seeing the same ugly face that has been shamelessly smiling at us," said Abdikasim Kamalov, holding a red Kyrgyz flag outside the presidential building. "We could no longer tolerate this. We want changes."
On Thursday night, thousands stayed on the main square outside the presidential headquarters. An elderly man and woman in a clearing in the crowd danced to imaginary music as a man pretended to beat drums.