Kyrgyzstan buries its dead, US halts troop flights

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Kyrgyzstan on Saturday buried several of those killed in the overthrow of the government, while security concerns prompted the US military to halt troop flights from its base in the Central Asian state.

Up to 10,000 mourners gathered on the edge of the burned-out Kyrgyz capital at a mass funeral to commemorate at least 78 people who died in protests this week during which troops fired on crowds besieging the presidential headquarters.

"Those who died on April 7 are the heroes of Kyrgyzstan," Roza Otunbayeva, the interim government chief, told the crowd.

"It was our duty to establish justice. Those who are being buried here today are all our children, the children of Kyrgyzstan."

Mourners carried coffins draped in the red-and-yellow Kyrgyz national flag and clutched portraits of the dead at a memorial complex built in honor of the victims of mass executions ordered by Soviet leader Josef Stalin in the 1930s.

Relatives lowered bodies into 16 graves lined in rows and joined hands in prayer, while mullahs chanted in Arabic.

Omurbek Tekebayev, a key figure in the provisional government, told the crowd: "Our people defeated the dictator."

Mourners showed little sympathy for President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Kuat Niyazbekov said his brother had died in the uprising.

"We don't even know what really happened on the square, what his last minutes of life were like," he said. "We can't forgive a president like that."

The uprising in Kyrgyzstan, where a third of the 5.3 million population lives below the poverty line, forced the president to retreat to his stronghold in the south of the country and has raised doubts over the future of the US air base near Bishkek.

Bakiyev's refusal to step down remains the main question as tenuous calm returned to the streets of Bishkek, still strewn with rubble and broken glass after days of violent clashes.

Otunbayeva has offered Bakiyev safe passage out of Kyrgyzstan if he steps down. His exact whereabouts are unclear.

"We would really like to start negotiations. We will solve everything peacefully," Keneshbek Dushebayev, head of the new state security service, told reporters.

All flights carrying troops from the Manas base, a vital cog in supplying NATO operations in Afghanistan, were suspended from Friday evening, a spokesman for the base said. Troops are using alternative routes in and out of Afghanistan.

"While normal flight operations at Manas were resumed on Friday, a decision was taken Friday evening to temporarily divert military passenger transport flights," the base's spokesman, Rickardo Bodden, told Reuters by telephone.

Another US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was a security-related decision made by the base commander on the ground.

Central to war effort

Pentagon officials say Manas is central to the war effort against the Taliban, allowing around-the-clock flights in and out of neighboring Afghanistan. About 50,000 troops passed through last month alone.

Members of Kyrgyzstan's self-proclaimed new leadership have said the US lease on the base could be shortened.

Russia, which sees former Soviet Kyrgyzstan as part of its traditional sphere of interest, also has an air base in the country. A Russian official, who declined to be named, said on Thursday that the country should have only a Russian base.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin became the first world leader to recognize the authority of the self-proclaimed government, just hours after it took power, raising suspicions that Moscow had played a role in the events.

Otunbayeva has described Russia as a key ally and publicly thanked Putin for his support. Almazbek Atambayev, deputy head of the new government, met Putin in Moscow on Saturday but there were no details of the talks.

She has accused Bakiyev's supporters of stoking a violent response. In the southern city of Jalalabad, 200 of his supporters gathered near a billboard picturing a smiling Bakiyev shaking hands with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

A crowd of 5,000 ethnic Uzbeks, who comprise a large part of the population in southwest Kyrgyzstan, rallied several kilometers away, saying they supported Kyrgyz unity and opposed any attempt to divide the north and south of the country.

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