(Reuters) – Kyrgyz troops opened fire on thousands of anti-government protesters on Wednesday outside the offices where President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was sheltering after clashes that killed at least 17 people, a Reuters witness said.
A group of at least 10 government soldiers were shooting with automatic weapons from the government headquarters toward protesters, a Reuters cameraman said.
There was intense gunfire in the center of the capital and a series of blasts, a Reuters reporter said. Protesters were dragging wounded people covered in blood away from the square.
The Kyrgyz Kabar news agency said 17 people had been killed and 142 people were wounded as demonstrators attempted to topple the president of the impoverished Central Asian state of 5.3 million people.
But an emergency services official said more than 50 people may have been killed.
Huge plumes of black smoke were billowing around the city center. A group of protesters, waving red-and-yellow Kyrgyz flags, arrived in the main square atop an armored personnel carrier seized from the military.
Ex-Soviet Kyrgyzstan hosts a U.S. military air base that helps support troops in Afghanistan, as well as a Russian base.
Kyrgyz Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov, who earlier dismissed the protesters in Talas as “bandits,” told Reuters by telephone that he and the president were both working in their offices.
“We daren’t even look out of the window,” Kamil Sydykov, the prime minister’s spokesman, said by telephone from inside the presidential building.
Some 1,000 people stormed the prosecutor-general’s office in the capital and were breaking windows and tossing out computers and office equipment, a Reuters reporter said. Opposition activists also took control of state television channel KTR.
“The political violence is likely to continue in Kyrgyzstan,” said Lilit Gevorgyan, political analyst at IHS Global Insight. “Given (Bakiyev’s) resolve in recent years to concentrate power in his hands only, it is difficult to see how a political compromise may be found.”
Kyrgyzstan receives aid from both Russia and the United States as well as from neighboring China. Bishkek also relies on remittances from migrant workers in Russia; payments that have dwindled in the last year as Russia’s economy has suffered.
“The country still has an inherent vulnerability which in an environment of economic dislocation can easily be sparked off into a new cycle of violence,” said Christopher Granville of Trusted Sources Research in London.
“The drop in remittances is a very important part of the explanation for the latest civic violence,” he said.
Protesters seized government buildings in three other towns. In one town, Talas, Kyrgyz First Deputy Prime Minister Aklybek Japarov and Interior Minister Moldomusa Kongantiyev were badly beaten. Kongantiyev was forced to shout: “Down with Bakiyev!,” two witnesses said.
The opposition in Kyrgyzstan has been demanding that Bakiyev, who himself came to power in a popular revolt in 2005, tackle corruption and fire his relatives from senior positions.
Russia called for restraint. “We would like to make an urgent appeal to the hostile parties to refrain from the use of force to avoid bloodshed,” Andrei Nesterenko, spokesman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, said in a statement.
The Kyrgyz government declared a state of emergency and said a curfew would be enforced between 8:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. in Bishkek and three other regions of Kyrgyzstan.
Bakiyev, from the south of Kyrgyzstan, has angered clans from Bishkek, Talas and other regions by appointing in his own kinsmen to senior positions, and excluding others from power, said Reinhard Krumm, director of a Moscow think-tank.
The protests spread to the capital after riots which began in Talas the day before and continued into Wednesday.
“We will stay here until the end, no matter what the government does,” Talas Kadyraliyev, a 45-year-old local opposition activist, told Reuters from the scene.
In Naryn, a town in central Kyrgyzstan, more than 1,000 opponents of the president also took over the local government building, witnesses told Reuters. The government headquarters in a southern village, Kerben, were also occupied by protesters.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited Bishkek last week and called on the government to do more to protect human rights.