BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan (AP) – Gunfire, wailing sirens, dark deserted streets and groups of young men with armbands helping police confront looters: so began the Kyrgyz capital’s second night after the country’s sudden shift of power.

Hundreds of pillagers wandered the rain-slick streets in mobs 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 had fled after 15 years in charge of this former Soviet republic in Central Asia.

But this night, police were back on duty – cruising the streets in marked cars and shouting over megaphones for order. Groups of stick-wielding young men hovered outside shops and offices – this time to guard them.

One of the front lines in the battle against looters was TsUM, the city’s most important department store and the only one that survived Thursday night’s plundering.

A dozen officers – ambivalent about working for a new leadership whose legitimacy they questioned – joined about 100 volunteers in guarding the store Friday.

Standing in the rain, the volunteers said they would defend TsUM – a fixture throughout the former Soviet bloc – all night long.

One of the volunteers tore a piece of yellow cloth in two, using one strip as an armband and another to wrap it around an iron bar gripped in his hand. I asked him if he would really hit anyone with it. He smiled broadly and said: “Yes.”

TsUM was not attacked Friday night. Marauders drew close but were deterred by police who fired into the air to warn them off, witnesses said

How the police fare will likely be a key test of the quickly appointed interim government’s ability to restore order and establish credibility at home and abroad.

Kurmanbek Bakiyev, a former opposition leader who was named acting prime minister and president, speedily appointed a Cabinet. Among the new government officials is Felix Kulov, who was released from prison during Thursday’s turmoil and appointed coordinator of the country’s law-enforcement agencies.

“The city looks as if it has gone mad,” Kulov said.

The looting so far appeared limited to Bishkek, and officials in other cities tried to prevent it spreading.

A statement purportedly from Akayev, the ousted president who was in an undisclosed location, warned that Kyrgyzstan was plunging into a dark time. The Red Cross reported dozens injured in the turmoil Thursday, while lawmaker Temir Sariyev said three people had been killed and about 100 injured overnight.

Throughout the capital, police appeared to be trying to determine the location of groups of looters, then rushing to the area and going after them in vehicles and on foot, firing into the air. One such operation played out for some 10 minutes, shouts piercing the previously quiet street as shots filled the air with the smell of gunpowder.

Earlier in the day, hundreds of poor treasure-hunters wandered up and down the five floors of a shopping mall that stood bare, its windows smashed and their frames charred.

All the goods in this Turkish-owned Beta Stores mall were swept away in a rampage the previous night, but people sifting through the remaining trash still found things to take: metal scrap, empty boxes, broken mannequins.

Almazbek Abdykadyrov was mounting several wooden boards on his bicycle.

“I want to build a house; I don’t have any material myself. Others are taking, so I’m taking, too,” he said.

Two teenagers carried a sink, saying it was “a present from Beta Stores.”

The area was littered with pieces of cardboard boxes and cloth and empty bottles.

Shops that escaped damage Thursday night were closed, or their owners hung signs reading “we are with the people” in hopes of warding off attacks.

Bishkek residents were frightened and shocked.

An elderly woman told me she was shaking as she watched the looting overnight and cars passing by her windows until 3 a.m. stuffed with carpets and other goods, some even hauling refrigerators and other large appliances or pieces of furniture on the roof.

“I’ve never seen anything as horrible as this in my entire life. Nobody was stopping them,” she said, overwhelmed.

Trying to restore order, Kulov held meetings with police and security officials and tried to persuade them to return to work. He pledged to “give a big battle to the pillagers.”

Some police were back on the streets Friday – but without their uniforms. They still appeared shocked by the storming of the government building the previous day.

One of the officers guarding TsUM, a senior police lieutenant who would not give his name, said police were ready to resume service.

But when asked if they would work under Kulov, he said: “We could, but how legitimate is he at the moment?”

He was one of the police officers who tried to defend the government building on Thursday, and his memories of the seizure were still fresh.

“It was slaughter,” he said. “We were counting our missing like in war.” He said dozens of police officers were injured, many seriously.

But stopping the looters appeared to be the main task for now, and it reconciled the police with the opposition.

“It was all started by provocateurs and then other people joined thinking that it’s property belonging to the president’s family and they have the right to part of it,” Kulov said.

One of the chains badly pillaged was Narodny shops, which belong to Akayev’s son Aidar.

Opposition supporters camping outside the government headquarters in Bishkek in three army tents denied their involvement in the night rampage.

“It’s those government-hired provocateurs who were trying to spoil our rally yesterday,” said Kadyrbai Sodirov, referring to hundreds of men in plainclothes who clashed with the anti-Akayev rally before the seizure of the government building known as the White House. “Now they are trying to tarnish our image another way.”

But Saniya Sagnayeva, an analyst from the International Crisis Group, said she believed most looters had been on the opposition side Thursday.

“It’s a war of the poor against the rich,” she said. “It is understandable: These young men are mostly from remote villages. They have no fridges, no radio at home. After their triumph at the White House, they think the city is theirs. It’s winners’ fever.”

Among the daylight pillagers at the Beta Store was one man who came for an unusual purpose. Vladimir Ivanenko had two small plastic bags full of what looked like rubbish.

He said his bags contained shattered pieces of red and yellow glass, broken cups, torn photographs of Bishkek, the mountains and Lake Issyk-Kul – a popular regional holiday destination in this country of 5 million people.

Ivanenko said he was going to use the pieces to create a picture that will embody “an epoch and a time.”

“The picture will be about shattered illusions. The red glass will symbolize blood and the yellow will symbolize lost illusions, and the torn pictures of Bishkek – our disappointment.”


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