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Power vacuum in Kyrgyzstan as president resigns after unrest

BISHKEK (Reuters) - Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov resigned on Thursday, leaving a power vacuum after days of unrest following a disputed election.

Jeenbekov, who said he wanted to prevent clashes between security forces and protesters who have demanded his removal, became the third president of the small Central Asian nation since 2005 to be toppled in a popular uprising.

It was not immediately clear who would take control of the country, a Russian ally that borders on China. Constitutional rules say the parliament speaker, Kanatbek Isayev, should assume the presidential powers. But some opposition groups want Isayev to step aside as well, putting control in the hands of Sadyr Japarov, a nationalist who was named prime minister after his supporters freed him from jail last week.

Isayev said parliament would accept Jeenbekov’s resignation on Friday, but did not make his own full intentions clear. He was quoted by local news website 24.kg as saying he had “no moral right” to the presidency because of the lame duck status of the parliament, which faces a rerun of the disputed election.

Japarov’s spokesman declined to say whether the prime minister would now press for Isayev to step aside.

NO BLOODSHED

Kyrgyzstan has been in turmoil since the Oct. 4 vote, which the opposition rejected after Jeenbekov’s allies were declared the winners. In a statement announcing his resignation, Jeenbekov said he feared violence might break out if protesters carried out a threat to march on his compound.

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“The military and security forces will be obliged to use their weapons to protect the state residence. Blood will be inevitably shed,” he said. “I do not want to go down in Kyrgyzstan’s history as a president who shed blood and shot at his own citizens.”

Since the election, opposition supporters have taken to the streets and seized government buildings, prompting the authorities to annul the vote.

Jeenbekov announced last week that he planned to resign, but did not say when. Earlier this week, he said he would stay in office until a new election was held. But Japarov’s supporters rejected the delay and pressed him to resign immediately.

“The president couldn’t hold out. He’s very weak. No spirit,” Dastan Bekeshev, a lawmaker who supports neither Jeenbekov nor Japarov, told Reuters. “It’s not clear what happens next, nobody can tell what is going to happen.”

Hundreds of Japarov’s supporters were rallying on Thursday some 700 metres away from the presidential residence. As news of Jeenbekov’s resignation reached them, they started chanting “Parliament must go!” and “Isayev must go!”.

Felix Kulov, a former prime minister who met with Jeenbekov before his resignation, said on Facebook the president had said nothing about planning to quit.

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“One thing is clear: some forces - I am sure sooner or later we will find out which ones - decided to seize power by force and made the president choose between resignation or an all-out war,” Kulov said.

Kyrgyzstan hosts both a Russian military base and a large Canadian-owned gold mine. Moscow, which considers the former Soviet space its sphere of influence, had said it would be responsible for ensuring stability in Kyrgyzstan and warned of a potential slide into chaos.

Russia said Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had spoken by phone to his Kyrgyz counterpart, Ruslan Kazakbayev, and promised to assist “legitimate authorities” to stabilise the situation. The call could be seen as recognition of Japarov’s legitimacy, as Kazakbayev, who previously served as foreign minister from 2010-2012, was named to the post this week by Japarov.

Russia is also dealing with instability in three other ex-Soviet states: Belarus, where a disputed election has triggered protests against President Alexander Lukashenko, and Armenia and Azerbaijan, which are fighting over control of an enclave.

Reporting by Olga Dzyubenko, Mariya Gordeyeva and Olzhas Auyezov; Writing by Peter Graff and Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Alison Williams, Philippa Fletcher and Peter Graff

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