Reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan — Opposition leaders in the small, mountainous Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan seized power in the capital early Thursday after thousands of protesters ransacked government buildings and riot police fired on crowds, killing dozens of people.
The unrest appeared to have unseated the government of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who reportedly fled to the southern city of Osh. Bakiyev has led the country since 2005, when he headed the so-called Tulip Revolution that deposed autocratic leader Askar A. Akayev.
Officials reported that at least 68 people had been killed and 400 wounded in clashes between police and demonstrators in Bishkek, the capital, and other Kyrgyz cities. However, opposition leaders put the death toll at 100. Neither report could be verified.
State television reported that the new government is led by opposition leader Roza Otunbayeva, a lawmaker and former foreign minister under Bakiyev. Otunbayeva was expected to address parliament Thursday morning.
The situation was being watched closely by Washington, which uses the Manas base at the airport in the capital, Bishkek, to ferry supplies in and out of Afghanistan.
Manas is the only remaining American base in Central Asia and is considered vital to the Afghanistan war effort. Military officials said the violence had not affected operations there.
U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Philip J. Crowley said the base was "functioning normally" and the Obama administration was urging a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
Kyrgyz opposition leaders have called for closure of Manas because, they say, the base could put the country at risk if the U.S. becomes involved in a military conflict with Iran. And at least twice in recent years Bakiyev has threatened to end U.S. use of the airport, but reconsidered after negotiating larger payments.
Jeffrey Mankoff, a Central Asia specialist with the Council on Foreign Relations, said he doubted the U.S. base was in jeopardy. "My instinct is that whoever is in power would be amenable to keeping the base open," he said, "as long as the price is right."
Last year, the Obama administration agreed to increase the annual rent payment from about $16 million to a reported $60 million.
Kyrgyz are secular Muslims, and Islamist sentiments do not appear to have played a role in the uprising. The protests apparently were driven by growing discontent over a recent 200% increase in heating fuel and electricity prices.
Demonstrations began Tuesday in the western city of Talas, where about 500 protesters seized a government building and took the local governor hostage.
The unrest spread Wednesday to Bishkek, where waves of angry demonstrators tried to storm the main government building known as the White House, using an armored carrier to ram its gates.
Police fired on demonstrators on Ala-Too Square, the main plaza in front of the White House, and used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowds.
Protesters fought back by throwing rocks and beating any police officers they were able to isolate and surround.
Demonstrators then stormed the parliament building and the state television and radio building and set ablaze the prosecutor general's office and National Security Service building.
Looting broke out throughout the city as demonstrators ransacked supermarket complexes and set shops on fire. Demonstrators were also seen looting the house of one of Bakiyev's sons and setting it ablaze.
As the violence subsided, opposition leaders began negotiations with Prime Minister Daniar Usenov, demanding Bakiyev's resignation. By late Wednesday, opposition leaders had appeared on state television to tell the nation they had formed their own government.
An independent radio station called Echo of Moscow , reported that Akayev, now living in Russia, had urged Bakiyev to step down.
Like Georgia's Rose Revolution in 2003 and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004, the popular revolt that overthrew Akayev was fueled by widespread anger over rigged elections and a thirst for democratic change.
Since then, however, many Kyrgyz in the nation of 5 million -- a third of whom live below the poverty line -- have becoming increasingly disillusioned with Bakiyev, whom they accused of fostering the same cronyism, corruption and crackdowns on news media freedoms that characterized the Akayev era.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had met with Bakiyev in Kyrgyzstan on Sunday during a tour of several Central Asian nations. His visit was marked by a protest outside the U.N. building in Bishkek by activists urging he raise the issues of human rights and curbs on the media.