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Officials warn of crackdown to end unrest in Kyrgyzstan

Use of force eyed; police break up protest in capital

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan -- Authorities raised the stakes yesterday in a standoff with opposition groups that have seized control of large parts of southern Kyrgyzstan, with riot police breaking up a protest in the capital and top officials warning they may use force to restore order elsewhere.

Hints of a potential crackdown came from two tough-talking new law enforcement officials appointed by President Askar Akayev after he fired their predecessors over the unrest in the Central Asian nation.

Protesters angered over allegedly fraudulent parliamentary elections have seized government administration buildings in three of Kyrgyzstan's seven regions and in smaller districts within two other regions. Most are in the south, where opposition to Akayev historically has been strongest, but one is in Talas, in the north, where his base of support generally had been more firm.

Seizure of the buildings does not mean protesters have control of a region, but opposition forces clearly appeared to be in charge in Osh, the former Soviet republic's second-largest city, and in the sizable town of Jalal-Abad.

''Our primary task is to restore constitutional order in all regions, but strictly in accordance with the constitution," said new Interior Minister Keneshbek Dushebayev. ''The law gives us every right to take action, including by using physical force, special means, and firearms."

He spoke hours after riot police in the capital, Bishkek, broke up a small opposition rally, signaling government determination to keep protests from spreading north. About 200 police encircled protesters calling for Akayev's ouster, scuffling with those who resisted and locking arms to force some 100 demonstrators out of the central square. Police detained 20 to 30 people, dragging some away.

''We will not allow any stormings, seizures, and takeovers in Bishkek," Dushebayev said.

Political culture in Kyrgyzstan is 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.

Kyrgyzstan lacks the energy resources or pipeline routes of its neighbors that have drawn the interest of Russia, the United States and China. But its status as a conduit for drugs and a home for Islamic extremists makes for volatility, and it seeks to balance US and Russian interests in the region by hosting military bases for both.

Officials have made broad accusations that ''extremists" are behind the protests, but there have been no overt indications of Islamist sentiment or influence among the demonstrators.

The unrest follows protests in Georgia and Ukraine that have led to the ouster of entrenched governments in the past 18 months.

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