BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan – Police returned to the streets of Kyrgyzstan's capital to confront looters, and groups of stick-wielding young men hovered outside shops and offices — this time to guard them.
Saturday brought a semblance of calm to Bishkek (search), though gutted shopping centers and looted stores told of the mayhem that marred celebrations of the stunningly swift change of power.
"Everything was normal last night — better than the previous night," said Interior Ministry spokesman Nurdin Jangarayev (search). "We have calmed the people down."
Mobs roamed the streets late Friday, throwing stones at cars and seemingly seeking a repeat of the previous night, when the city was theirs and the unpopular President Askar Akayev (search) had fled after 15 years in charge of this former Soviet republic in Central Asia.
But in contrast with the previous night there was a large law enforcement police presence, with sirens wailing and police barking for order through loudspeakers.
Shooting broke out sporadically, including when police guarding a central department store along with volunteers fired shots into the air to deter a group of marauders. On another downtown street, at least a dozen shots were fired as police chased shouting youths.
Jangarayev would not say how many people were injured or arrested.
"Freedom has finally come to us," Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the opposition leader named acting president and prime minister Friday, told a crowd. Celebrations also were reported in the south, where opposition forces seized control of key cities and towns earlier this month.
Akayev arrived in Russia late Friday from neighboring Kazakhstan, the Russian news agency Interfax reported. The Kyrgyz embassy in Moscow said it had no information on his whereabouts. The Russian Foreign Ministry refused to comment. President Vladimir Putin has said he would not object if Akayev wanted to come to Russia.
Akayev's whereabouts have been a mystery, although a statement purportedly from him said he was out of the country only temporarily, denied he had resigned and denounced what he called the opposition's "unconstitutional coup d'etat."
The fall of Akayev's government came swiftly Thursday after weeks of intensifying protests in the south, propelled by widespread anger over disputed parliamentary elections in late February and early March.
Akayev's departure made Kyrgyzstan the third former Soviet republic in the past 18 months — after Georgia and Ukraine — to see popular protests bring down long-entrenched leaders widely accused of corruption. The 60-year-old Akayev had led Kyrgyzstan since 1990, before it gained independence in the Soviet collapse.
Bakiyev quickly appointed a Cabinet, choosing mostly prominent opposition figures for the posts of acting foreign, defense and finance ministers and chief prosecutor. For the job of acting interior minister, he picked Myktybek Abdyldayev, a former chief prosecutor who had been fired Wednesday by Akayev.
Bakiyev's appointment as acting president was endorsed by a newly restored parliament of lawmakers who held seats before the disputed elections.
Bakiyev also signed an order appointing other ministers and new governors of the northern Chui and the southern Osh and Jalal-Abad regions, which were the epicenter of anti-Akayev protests.
The new leaders' immediate challenge in the strategic nation — it has both Russia and U.S. military bases and borders on China — was halting vandalism and looting that left major stores in Bishkek gutted and damaged by youths who roamed the capital overnight.
"The city looks as if it has gone mad," said Felix Kulov, a prominent opposition figure who was released from prison during Thursday's uprising and appointed coordinator of law enforcement.
A swelling crowd in Bishkek marched to the central square, and hundreds stormed the presidential and government headquarters, overcoming riot police who put up little resistance as government officials fled under cover of Interior Ministry troops who also left.
Opposition supporters celebrated, waving flags from the windows and taking turns in Akayev's chair, but rowdy youths also ransacked the building before more senior opposition figures could restore order.
"An unconstitutional coup d'etat has been staged in Kyrgyzstan," the purported Akayev statement said.
"My current stay outside the country is temporary," he was quoted as saying. "Rumors of my resignation are deliberate, malicious lies."
In the e-mailed statement, with the sender listed as the Kyrgyz presidential press service, Akayev said he had given orders not to use force during the uprising, ignoring the advice of his aides, and that he had left the country to avoid bloodshed.
Akayev's spokesman, Dosali Esenaliyev, said he did not know of the statement's existence, and its authenticity could not be determined.
Akayev's wife, Mairam, confirmed that her husband fled Bishkek as protesters began to storm the government building, Russia's Rossiyskaya Gazeta reported. The paper, which did not say where she was, quoted her as saying that Akayev left "by agreement with the European community," but she did not elaborate.
"We are safe, but the country is dying," she said.
Kyrgyzstan has been a conduit for drugs and a potential hotbed of Islamic extremism, particularly in the impoverished south. There was no indication, however, that the opposition would be more amenable to Islamic fundamentalist influence than Akayev's government has been, or that its foreign policy would change significantly.
The State Department said Friday that the Bush administration would work jointly with Russia to promote a "sense of order" in Kyrgyzstan.
The protests began even before the first round of parliamentary elections Feb. 27 and swelled after March 13 run-offs that the opposition said were seriously flawed. The ballots put Akayev's son and daughter in a parliament that many Kyrgyz saw as a club for corrupt people with cash and connections.