By Peter Leonard (AP)
JALAL-ABAD, Kyrgyzstan -- In the stronghold of Kyrgyzstan's deposed president, residents clustered on the streets Saturday, holding intense discussions on whether to follow the figures who claim to be the new government.
Some said deposed President Kurmanbek Bakiyev did a lot of good for the country and dismissed the complaints of the opposition members who drove him out, but many other appeared weary of the country's turmoil and were willing to support anyone who can bring them a measure of stability and comfort.
Bakiyev fled the capital, Bishkek, on Wednesday after a protest rally against corruption, rising utility bills and deteriorating human rights exploded into police gunfire and chaos that left at least 79 people dead and sparked protesters to storm government buildings. He was believed to be in his home Jalal-Abad region on Saturday.
"He built the economy. He built schools, roads and kindergartens. The protesters were just a minority," said Aizat Zupukharova, a health worker in Jalal-Abad.
But, she added, "People are afraid to come out."
"Bakiyev did some good things, but his family led him astray," said another resident, Sapar Usmonov, referring to widespread allegations that Bakiyev's relatives profited hugely and improperly from his nearly five years in office. The claims echo those made against Bakiyev's predecessor, Askar Akayev, who was driven out of office in protests in 2005.
The interim rulers say they have offered Bakiyev safe passage out of the country if he steps down, but he has made no public sign of capitulation. That stalemate leaves Kyrgyzstan's near-term stability in doubt, a strategic worry for the West because of the U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan that is a key element in the international military campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The base provides refueling flights for warplanes over Afghanistan and is an important transit point for troops. U.S. Central Command spokesman Maj. John Redfield said that although normal flight operations at the base were resumed Friday, military passenger flights were being temporarily diverted.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Saturday spoke with Kyrgyzstan's interim leader to convey U.S. support and discuss the importance of the U.S. air base.
Clinton telephoned Roza Otunbayeva, a former foreign minister and onetime Bakiyev ally who heads the interim government, to offer humanitarian aid and to discuss the need for stability in the region, the U.S. State Department said.
Otunbayeva reaffirmed the country would abide by previous agreements to help the U.S. seek stability in nearby Afghanistan. Clinton will send Assistant Secretary Robert Blake to Kyrgyzstan to follow up on the discussion.
Kyrgyzstan's society is strongly clannish, but there are few overt signs that Bakiyev's fellow southerners would coalesce into support for him against the self-declared opposition interim government even though they think well of him.
In taking power on Thursday, the interim leaders said they controlled four of Kyrgyzstan's seven regions. By Saturday they claimed to have expanded their control throughout the country.
"We control the entire country, that's for sure," Otunbayeva said. "We have our representatives in the south. There are some places where there are outbursts organized by Bakiyev's minions and hirelings, but on the whole we are in control."
Jalal-Abad is on the southern side of the soaring mountain massifs that divide Kyrgyzstan into often-rival sections. Usmonov expressed fatigue with such jockeying for power.
"It doesn't matter where the president comes from — he just has to be a fitting man," he said.
Across the mountains in the capital, hundreds of people gathered in one of Kyrgyzstan's most prestigious cemeteries for the burial of some of those who died Wednesday. The interments tacitly conferred national hero status on the dead.
"For the sake of the future, for the power of the people, young people gave their lives," Otunbayeva said at the Ata-Beit cemetery. "The people who came into power five years ago on the wave of revolution turned out to be criminals."
"We won't let Bakiyev come back; the people won't let him back into Bishkek," vowed mourner Mehlis Usubakanov.
Otunbayeva said Friday the base agreement will be continued at least for the near future. Opposition figures in the past have said they wanted to close the U.S. base, located at the international airport serving the capital.
Russia, which also maintains a military base in Kyrgyzstan, had pushed Bakiyev's government to evict the U.S. military. But after announcing that American forces would have to leave the Manas base, Kyrgyzstan agreed to allow them to stay after the U.S. raised the annual rent to about $63 million from $17 million.
Associated Press Writers Yuras Karmanau in Bishkek and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.
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