Kyrgyz minister attacked as crowds gather to support mayor

Mayor of Osh appointed by deposed president returns home to acclaim after refusing 'job offer' from new government.

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OSH // Around 3,000 anti-government protesters rallied in the southern Kyrgyzstan city of Osh today, attacking a government minister and demanding the resignation of the country's president. Protesters, who were rallying outside the city administration building in support of their controversial mayor, beat up Kyrgyzstan's labour minister, Aigul Ryskulova, who had been sent to calm the crowd. She was later seen escaping in a car. The protesters had gathered with a demand to speak with the mayor of Osh, Melis Myrzakhmatov, an outspoken critic of the central government in Bishkek, as rumours that he had been sacked swirled throughout the city. He had not been heard from since attending meetings with the government in the capital earlier this week.

But Mr Myrzakhmatov returned to Osh, Kyrgyzstan's second city, in dramatic fashion at midday today and in a fiery speech to the protesters said he had been detained for three days by the government in Bishkek, who had demanded his resignation."I am not going anywhere from my post and I will stay with you and work with you for the future prosperity of Osh," he shouted to loud applause from the crowd. The interim government of Kyrgyzstan denied that he had ever been dismissed. Azimbek Beknazarov, a deputy prime minister, appeared on a makeshift podium with Mr Myrzakmatov and held the mayor's arm aloft to frenzied cheers from a crowd that had swollen throughout the morning. "Melis was offered another job, but he refused. He said he would continue as mayor and that his work here isn't complete," Mr Beknazarov said. "Nobody has removed Melis from his post."

He did not say what the alternative job offer had entailed. The interim government of Kyrgyzstan, an impoverished former Soviet republic that hosts both Russian and US military air bases, has struggled to impose its authority in the south since assuming power after a revolt toppled the president in April. Nearly 400 people were killed and thousands left homeless during clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in June, the worst bloodshed in the country's modern history. Most of the fighting occurred in Osh and another southern city, Jalalabad.

"I am always with the people," Mr Myrzakmatov said from the podium. His supporters later began to disperse, many crowding into trucks and shouting "Victory!" as they drove through the streets of Osh. Mr Myrzakmatov was appointed mayor of Osh by Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the president who was deposed in the April revolt. Mr Bakiyev, who is in exile in Belarus, retains strong support in the south of Kyrgyzstan, his political and family stronghold.

Many demonstrators on the central square also criticised Roza Otunbayeva, Kyrgyzstan's acting president. "Nobody supports Otunbayeva here. Nobody elected her. She is an enemy," said Abduvali, who travelled to the demonstrations from a village outside Osh. He gave only his first name. Ms Otunbayeva, a former ambassador to the United States and Britain, plans an election on October 10 that would create the first parliamentary democracy in Central Asia, a region otherwise ruled by authoritarian presidents.

Ms Otunbayeva flew to Armenia today to attend a meeting of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation, where she will request military hardware to help maintain order in the restive south. * Agencies