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4 Die in Kyrgyzstan Clashes - 2002-03-18

At least four people are dead in Kyrgyzstan after clashes late Sunday night between police and demonstrators in the southern Jalal-Abad region.

Kyrgyz officials on Monday described the protests as political extremism, and said additional forces would be sent to the region to keep the peace.

The protest took place near the town of Kerben in southern Kyrgyzstan. More that 1,000 people gathered to demand the release from prison of a leading opposition parliament member, Azimbek Beknazarov.

Kyrgyz security officials said the protesters turned violent, and started throwing stones at police officers, and set a building on fire. No information has been released on how the people died or on their identities. About 47 policemen and 15 protesters were also injured during the fighting. Interior Minister Temirbek Akmataliyev blamed "opposition and human rights activists" for the unrest.

Mr. Beknazarov was arrested in January for allegedly abusing his position as a prosecutor in 1995. But critics of President Askar Akayev say the arrest was politically motivated because Mr. Beknazarov often spoke out against top Kyrgyz government officials.

Kyrgyzstan has often been described as an oasis of democracy in Central Asia, especially when compared to countries like Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan. But that reputation has been marred in recent years by allegations of vote-rigging during elections, arrests of opposition politicians and crackdowns against independent journalists.

A political analyst with the International Crisis Group, Saniya Sagnaeva, said Sunday's protest was a sign of the growing antagonism between the government and the people.

Ms. Sagnaeva, who is based in Osh Kyrgyzstan, about 100 kilometers from where the protests occurred, said Kyrgyzstan can no longer be described as an island of democracy in Central Asia, and that, in fact, there is very little democracy left.

This is not the first time that violence has broken out in the southern part of the mountainous country. The region has been the site of fighting between Islamic insurgents and government troops in the past. However, Sunday's protests did not appear to be linked to any militant organizations or Islamic movement.

The country of about 4.5 million people is also host to hundreds of U.S. and allied troops. They are in the country to support the war against terrorism in nearby Afghanistan. Most of the troops are stationed near the capital, Bishkek, in the north of the country.