The central Asian state of Kyrgyzstan was in complete chaos last night.
The President fled the capital after violent clashes between police and protesters left up to 100 dead. The city of Bishkek saw anarchy as mobs overran riot police, seized their weapons and stormed government buildings.
Sources close to President Kurmanbek Bakiyev would only confirm his departure from Bishkek but opposition politicians said that the president had resigned his office. The events were watched with unease in Moscow and Washington, both of which have military installations in Kyrgyzstan. The US airbase at Manas Airport in Bishkek is seen as a key supply point for American operations in Afghanistan.
The Kyrgyz Health Ministry said that 40 people had been killed and around 400 wounded during the clashes, but opposition forces spoke of over 100 people dead. Throughout the day, gangs of protesters, mostly men and apparently acting with no chain of command, went on the rampage.
The centre of Bishkek witnessed extraordinary scenes as groups of riot police came under attack from angry mobs of protesters. Police used tear gas and fired rubber bullets, but were nevertheless overrun by protesters. In many cases, whole battalions of riot police were forced to flee in terror, as youths wielding stones and weapons gave pursuit. Some police officers were captured and set upon. By late afternoon, some of the protesters had managed to seize weaponry and even armoured vehicles from the police, and began attacking government buildings.
"Bakiyev will resign and we'll take over the White House tonight," cried one jubilant protester, who said that the President was responsible for the unrest and must be removed from office. "If he didn't give the orders to shoot, then these troops would not be firing on innocent people."
Plumes of smoke rose up from several points in central Bishkek as cars and government buildings were set on fire. "Everything has been looted – all the furniture, documents and computers," said Zainidin Kurmanov, speaker of the Kyrgyz parliament.
Frequent gunfire was heard in the city centre and protesters were dragging fallen comrades covered in blood to hospitals for medical help.
Around 1,000 protesters broke into the prosecutor-general's office and burnt it to the ground. Government soldiers fired automatic weapons into the crowd to push back the masses from the government's headquarters, though it was unclear at that point whether Mr Bakiyev was still inside.
Galina Skripkina, a senior opposition official, said Mr Bakiyev had flown from the capital to the southern city of Osh. The government had agreed to resign but a deal had not been signed, Ms Skripkina told Reuters. Mr Bakiyev did not make any public appearances or statements at any point during the day.
Violence erupted in other towns across the country. In Talas, Moldomusa Kongatiyev, the interior minister, was seized by the mob and badly beaten. Some reports said he had died at the hands of the protesters though his ministry later denied it. Witnesses said the minister was forced by the crowd to shout: "Down with Bakiyev!"
Opposition leaders have been calling for dialogue with Mr Bakiyev, but after yesterday's events it seems unlikely that he will be able to return to power. Ten opposition leaders who had been arrested by Kyrgyz security forces earlier in the week were freed yesterday, and declared that they would form a new government. "The current government is asking us to save their souls; they are asking us to deal with the people outside," Omurbek Tekebayev, one of the opposition leaders, told the main Kyrgyz television station. The channel went off the air after protesters stormed the building, but started broadcasting again in the evening under control of the opposition.
The unrest began in Talas on Tuesday, when a demonstration turned violent and protesters stormed the offices of the local administration and took the governor hostage.
It is an extraordinary turnaround in fortunes for Mr Bakiyev, who himself came to power on the back of street protests in 2005, in what became known as the Tulip Revolution. The former president, Askar Akayev, who had been accused of corruption and nepotism, fled to Moscow where he now teaches mathematics at a university. Mr Bakiyev promised a new era of democratic and transparent governance.
But as time went on, he was accused of behaving in an even-worse manner than his predecessor. His 32-year-old son Maxim has been given vast powers and put in charge of a massive state fund created using loan money provided by Moscow. Local NGOs have complained of increasing authoritarianism and a clampdown on free media, and the final straw appears to have been a 200 per cent increase in utility bills at the beginning of this year.
As night fell on Bishkek, a curfew was called, as looters continued their rampage, storming shops and supermarkets. There were reports that the family home of the President and his son had been raided and looted.
The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, visited Kyrgyzstan last week and called on Mr Bakiyev to do more to protect human rights. Yesterday, he and other world leaders, including Russia's Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, issued statements calling for restraint from all sides.