Although police, backed by civilian volunteers, solidified control of the capital after several nights of looting and gunfire following the president's ouster, the dispute between parliaments raised troubling questions for the impoverished country's 5 million people.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, of which Kyrgyzstan is a member, is sending legal experts to try to unravel the parliament conflict.

"We think the need for them is urgent," said envoy Alojz Peterle, who assessed the dispute as "very, very sensitive".

Highway blocked off

Since President Askar Akayev was ousted by demonstrators who stormed his offices on Thursday, there has been little indication that his backers aim for a comeback.

About 150 people blocked a highway on Sunday in support of Akayev, who has fled to Russia, but eventually they dispersed peacefully.

A key former opposition leader now in charge of coordinating law enforcement warned the ousted president's supporters not to try to seize power.

"I think they have the brains and wisdom not to take this step," Felix Kulov said late on Sunday.

But Kyrgyzstan's leaders must strictly follow the constitution and law, he said, or give Akayev "an opportunity to try, through international organisations, to return again [to power]".

Elections disputed

Protests began in early March after the first round of parliamentary elections that the opposition said were manipulated by Akayev's government to give him a compliant legislature. After the second round, anger swelled and protesters stormed the presidential administration building.

Opposition leader Bakiyev has 
been appointed acting president

The Supreme Court reinstated the country's previous parliament by revoking the mandates of the new lawmakers.

The restored old legislature chose opposition leader Kurmanbek Bakiyev as acting president and prime minister.

But the newly elected parliament, which had convened just two days before Akayev fled, also claimed legitimacy.

Opposition figure's support

The Central Elections Commission backed that claim on Saturday, and a day later came surprise backing from Kulov, who is widely esteemed by the opposition after spending the last four years in prison on charges seen as politically motivated.

"The new parliament is legitimate, and the old parliament's term has expired," said Kulov, who was freed on Thursday by jubilant protesters after the storming of the presidential quarters.

Kulov threatened to "take measures to arrest" anyone in the old parliament who refused to step down.

Acting Prosecutor-General Azimbek Beknazarov challenged Kulov, asking: "These are the people who freed you - will you arrest them?"

Kulov responded: "I am tired; I apologise for that."

The new parliament held a brief session on Sunday in a grand, wood-panelled auditorium, while some legislators from the competing body watched the proceedings on televisions in the parliamentary press room. Some legislators are members of both parliaments.

Official recognition

In a sign that the new parliament may be gaining legitimacy, Beknazarov, who is closely allied with Bakiyev, conceded that the new parliament was recognised officially, and lawmaker Omurbek Tekebayev said Bakiyev had sent a representative to the session.

Bakiyev could not immediately be reached.

"The new parliament is legitimate, and the old parliament's term has expired" 

Felix Kulov, opposition leader now in charge of security

His spokeswoman said she would take up her position officially only on Monday so could not comment. But lawmaker Alevtina Pronenko, who is a member of Bakiyev's acting cabinet, criticised the newly elected parliament's decision to claim legitimacy, warning: "I think that the people will not stand for this."

In an apparent bid to safeguard Bakiyev's position as acting leader, the acting prosecutor-general said decisions taken earlier by the old parliament were still considered valid.

However, Bakiyev's position could be considered weak because he was named only the "acting" leader, which might not hold up to a challenge by the new legislators.

Presidential elections are scheduled for 26 June, and Bakiyev has said he plans to run. Kulov is also considered by many to be a likely candidate.

Order returning

On the streets of the capital, the mass disorder that followed Akayev's ouster subsided, with police and volunteers with red armbands claiming success after a relatively quiet night in their fight against the looting that left Bishkek's main street a line of boarded up and shuttered stores.

Though there was no more mass disorder, there were still reports of theft at smaller stores and offices and an increase in car thefts, an Interior Ministry spokesman said.

Three people were killed in the capital overnight, he added. The circumstances of the deaths were under investigation, but at least one of the victims appeared to have been a "pillager," he said.

In a single Bishkek district, five cars were stolen, an unprecedented number, police said. Interior Ministry officers suspect the cars were stolen by looters eager to take their booty home.

About 80km outside Bishkek, some 700 protesters supporting Akayev gathered on Sunday in Akayev's hometown, and about 150 of them blocked a main road to the capital before peacefully dispersing.

The protesters said they do not accept Bakiyev as leader.

Akayev, 60, had led Kyrgyzstan since 1990, before it gained independence in the Soviet collapse. He was long considered the most democratic leader in the five former Soviet Central Asian nations but was accused of increasingly cracking down on dissent in recent years.

Kyrgyzstan is host to US and Russian military bases and has aimed to cultivate good relations with both countries.

Bakiyev spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday and said Russia had promised aid such as seed and fertiliser for the spring planting season.