In a sharp setback to Kyrgystan's interim government, the powerful mayor of the nation's second largest city successfully resisted presidential pressure to resign from his appointed post.
Kyrgyzstan's split between south and north widened Friday as Melis Myrzakmatov returned in triumph from Bishkek, the nation's capital. He told his cheering supporters that he would remain Mayor of Osh, the capital of the nation's restive south.
On Thursday, Kommersant, a Russian newspaper, published an interview with the mayor who said he would refuse to recognize the interim government's authority and would not acknowledge the legitimacy of its decrees. For 24 hours the mayor's fate seemed to hang in the balance as Osh swirled with rumors that he had been arrested or was negotiating his resignation with envoys of Roza Otunbayeva, the interim president.
Watch Friday's Rally Kyrgyzstan's City of Osh:
Starting Thursday, increasingly angry crowds gathered outside the Mayor's office, a white Soviet era building facing a massive statue of Lenin. The mayor is seen as a hardline Kyrgyz nationalist, and crowds were swollen by relatives of Krygyz victims in the inter-ethnic violence that swept Osh in mid-June. Young men roughed up the only two foreign cameramen to venture onto the square.
Abdieva Turgunai, a protest organizer, told VOA that Kyrgyz turned out Friday to support their mayor because he will continue to stand up to the Uzbek community. Hundreds of people were killed here in the inter-ethnic violence following the overthrow in April of former Kyrgyzstan president Kurmanbek Bakiyev.
In the middle of the afternoon, the crowd of 3,000 roared its approval as Mr. Myrzakmatov appeared in front of City Hall.
The mayor said: 'I am going nowhere. I am with the people. I am with you."
The crowd, bolstered by the presence of horsemen from the countryside, started to chant: "Victory, victory."
Trying to bridge the north-south divide, Azimbek Beknazarov, deputy leader of the interim government, also appeared before the crowd. He gave a brief speech, saying: "Myrzakmatov is still the mayor of Osh, even though he was offered other jobs in the interim government.
But some men in the crowd heckled him. Then others hit and kicked him before he was able to escape in his car.
Supporters of the Mayor say he will block the arrival of 50 European police trainers, who were to come here this month to observe procedures by the overwhelmingly ethnic Kyrgyz police force.
The stationing of the trainers, under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, is widely seen as one price Kyrgyzstan has to pay to receive $1.1 billion in international reconstruction aid over the next year. But, the Mayor of Osh opposes the stationing of foreign police observers as interference in local police procedures.
On Monday, Human Rights Watch, the American human rights group, reported that Osh police continue to harass and sometimes torture members of the ethnic Uzbek minority, a group that suffered the greatest human and material violence in the inter-ethnic fighting two months ago.
Nadir an ethnic Uzbek human rights worker, who asked not to be further identified, talked Thursday about the need for foreign police observers. ''The OSCE police group has to come as soon as possible because the population does not believe in the law enforcement bodies because the police and interior force bodies are behaving in a very severe way to the ethnic minorities," he said.
With tensions high, foreign aid groups restricted travel by their workers around the city on Friday.
The city once again showed its split along ethnic lines.
Ms. Turgunai, the Kyrgyz nationalist, praised the mayor as an honest, hardworking, man who will stand up to the Uzbek minority. Nadir, the Uzbek human rights worker, said that Mayor is the core of the problem here.
"The Mayor's office has to be changed from the root, from the top to the bottom. Because the mayor has made his own team," he said.
But on Friday, with the Mayor firmly in charge here, Nadir said he was proceeding with plans to emigrate to Canada.