Kyrgyz Opposition Head Investigated

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — Police in Kyrgyzstan launched a criminal investigation against the country's main opposition leader over a purported weapons offense, the Interior Ministry said Monday.

The opposition Ata Meken party said the charge is an attempt to derail its leader's planned attendance at a conference on Kyrgyz politics in Moscow this week.

Police say they found a combat shotgun containing military-grade cartridges in Omurbek Tekebayev's car during an unsanctioned rally in the northern Talas region earlier this month. The 7.62-caliber Saiga combat shotgun was illegally upgraded, police said, without giving additional details.

"These criminal charges are unwarranted and politically motivated," Ata Meken spokesman Zhoomart Saparbayev said. "This is a continuation of the pressure being put on opposition forces and an attempt to intimidate citizens by making an example of opposition leaders."

Opposition politicians in the impoverished Central Asian nation have been increasingly targeted by criminal investigations in recent weeks. Critics say President Kurmanbek Bakiyev's government is ratcheting up pressure against the opposition as economic conditions worsen.

Bakiyev was elected after the March 2005 ouster of longtime President Askar Akayev. Since then, Kyrgyzstan has been roiled by political instability, electricity shortages and deteriorating public security.

On Monday, however, Bakiyev named an opposition politician as first deputy prime minister as part of a reshuffle analysts have linked to a 2010 presidential election.

Omurbek Babanov, 38, ran for the parliament in 2007 as a member of the moderate opposition Social Democratic party. He has since quit politics to concentrate on business but retained party membership.

(AP, Reuters)