OSH, Kyrgyzstan – OSH, Kyrgyzstan (AP) — Kyrgyzstan's interim government suffered a humiliating blow Friday as a powerful opponent refused to step down as mayor of a southern city devastated by deadly ethnic violence two months ago.
Osh Mayor Melis Myrzakmatov — a self-avowed Kyrgyz nationalist in this former Soviet republic in Central Asia — told a rally of about 3,000 people in the city's main square that he would defy government efforts to have him fired.
"I am going nowhere. I am with the people, I am with you," Myrzakmatov told the crowd to loud cheers.
The mayor's show of force challenged the authority of the interim government, which took power after former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted in a bloody street revolt in April. In June, renewed violence between ethnic Kyrgyz mobs and minority Uzbeks killed at least 370 people, mainly Uzbeks, and forced 400,000 others to flee.
Myrzakmatov, a former Bakiyev loyalist, has fought to keep his job despite his ally's ouster. The mayor's supporters delivered fiery speeches at Friday's rally condemning the government and calling for interim President Roza Otunbayeva to step down.
Government deputy leader Azimbek Beknazarov — who stood flanked by bodyguards and holding a reinforced briefcase to his chest at the mayor's rally Friday — was heckled when he gave a brief speech confirming that "Myrzakmatov is still the mayor of Osh, even though he was offered other jobs in the interim government."
Some in the crowd then lashed out at Beknazarov, hitting and kicking him before his security detail whisked him away.
An analyst said the rally showed the country was in danger of splitting between two camps claiming legitimacy of power.
"The government has essentially lost control of part of the country," said Paul Quinn-Judge, Central Asian project director for International Crisis Group.
Hundreds of Myrzakmatov's supporters gathered Thursday in Osh amid mounting speculation that the government planned to dismiss him as mayor.
Tensions rose further after Myrzakmatov told Russian newspaper Kommersant in an interview published Thursday he would refuse to recognize the interim government's authority and would not acknowledge the legitimacy of its decrees.
"This further undermines the diminishing authority of the president, who put her prestige and authority very much behind removing Melis Myrzakmatov," Quinn-Judge said.
Myrzakmatov has alarmed the government by making strong nationalist statements perceived as marginalizing the Uzbek community, stoking fears of renewed ethnic clashes.
Speaking at the rally, Osh's police chief Kursan Asanov also offered support to Myrzakmatov — adding to concern about the central government's control over law enforcement in the south.
Osh, Kyrgyzstan's second-largest city, was a power base for the ousted president and his family. The ethnically mixed city of Kyrgyz and Uzbeks lies on the fringe of the fertile Ferghana Valley near Uzbekistan and Tajikistan on one of the most heavily used routes for Afghan heroin heading to Russia.
Many in the city have criticized the government's recent decision to invite a 52-member delegation of police advisers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Amid the protests, the unarmed force looks unlikely to arrive next week as the government had hoped.
Otunbayeva went to Armenia on Thursday for an informal summit of the Russian-dominated security grouping of several ex-Soviet nations, the Collective Security Treaty Organization.
Quinn-Judge suggested her decision to leave Kyrgyzstan as her government's authority was being questioned could further erode her standing.
Kyrgyzstan, which hosts both U.S. and Russian military bases, plans to hold parliamentary elections in October in which current interim government members are barred from entering. A June constitutional referendum also reduced presidential powers in favor of those of the parliament.