Bishkek Braced for Aksy Anniversary

There are ominous signs that the anniversary of a bloody protest in the south of the country could spark political turmoil.

Bishkek Braced for Aksy Anniversary

There are ominous signs that the anniversary of a bloody protest in the south of the country could spark political turmoil.

As the anniversary of last year's tragedy in the southern region of Aksy looms, both government and opposition are preparing for a possible showdown.

Leaders of the movement demanding the resignation of President Akaev and the introduction of reforms - whose members include public figures and other opposition deputies - say a people's congress will be held on March 17 in the village of Bospiak, in the Aksy region, where six people were killed and 60 injured in a protest that shook the country.

They say the memorial gathering will hear renewed calls for the prosecution of those who ordered police to open fire on demonstrators gathered in the area to demand the release of jailed local deputy Azimbek Beknazarov.

Beknazarov, who had been severely critical of the government for ceding territory to China in a border treaty, was convicted of abuse of power while serving as a senior official. Analysts say the charges had been fabricated in an effort to silence the politician over the land deal.

The deaths in Aksy sparked off broader unrest in the south, prompting President Akaev to release Beknazarov and pledge to punish those responsible for the tragedy.

At the end of 2002 criminal charges were finally brought against a number of officers, but they were only convicted of hindering an unsanctioned demonstration.

The campaign for justice continues. On a recent visit to Europe, Beknazarov held meetings with human rights organisations and announced his intention to appeal to an international court. Families and opposition members have also demanded that high-ranking state officials should be held accountable for the incident.

The opposition are not the only ones preparing for March 17. The government appears to be bracing itself for trouble.

In February, it approved an aid package for the Aksy region, which includes extra state benefits for the families of those who died during the protests. At the same time, police and army cadets have been holding high profile training exercises in the capital, one of which simulated confrontations with demonstrators.

In the latter, attended by Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev and covered extensively by the local media, cadets pretended to be protesters, waving placards calling for the resignation of the government, while the police called on them to stop. The staged event culminated with officers dispersing the demonstrators became violent and set fire to several vehicles.

"What you have shown today is that you can respond to extreme situations and restore order," Tanaev told the participants in the exercise. He said the country is under threat from external enemies, gangs and the radical opposition, which has been attempting to seize power by any means possible.

The timing of the training exercises was not lost on the opposition, who said it formed part of the authorities' preparations for March 17. "The government has opted to frighten its own people, but they won't succeed in suppressing their aspirations for democracy and justice," said Topchubek Turgunaliev, chairman of the Erkindik (Freedom) opposition party.

Asked by journalists if the exercises were preparation for the anniversary of last year's tragedy, deputy minister of the interior Rasulberdi Raimberdiev insisted they were routine training, but the ministry's plans to repeat them in the vicinity of Aksy in March suggests otherwise, analyst say.

"Hardly anyone doubts that the authorities are preparing to suppress possible disturbances in the south of the country. The fact that training is planned for March, in the (Aksy region) is clear evidence of this," noted Zamira Kojobaeva of the popular Kyrgz newspaper Agym.

Whatever warning signals are being sent out, Beknazarov insists that the people of Aksy will not be intimidated. "My voters are in a decisive mood and they will commemorate their children come what may," he told IWPR. "Nor do they have any intention of backing down on any of their demands."

Sultan Jumagulov is a BBC stringer in Bishkek

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