Dozens die in political unrest in Kazakhstan

by Jim Heintz | The Associated Press

MOSCOW: Security forces in Kazakhstan killed dozens of protesters and 12 police officers were killed in an explosion of violence in which protesters stormed government buildings and set them on fire, officials said on Thursday.

A police officer beheaded in the unrest has become a growing challenge to authoritarian rule in the former Soviet republic.

Protesters again took to the streets on Thursday, a day after they stormed the presidential residence and the office of the mayor in the country’s largest city, Almaty, despite a strong backlash from the authorities.

Police were outside, including in the Nur-Sultan capital, which was reported to be calm, and a Russian-led force of peacekeepers was on the way.

Videos from Russian news agency Tass showed police opened fire on a street near Republic Square where protesters had gathered, although they could not be seen in the footage. Late on Thursday, Tass said protesters had been driven out of the square, but sporadic gunfire continued in the area.

Earlier, Russia’s Sputnik news service reported that a group of about 200 demonstrators were fired upon by police in the city.

In Wednesday’s unrest, “dozens of attackers were killed,” police spokesman Sultanat Azirbek told state news channel Khabar-24. The channel, citing city officials, reported that 12 police officers were killed and 353 were injured. The Home Ministry said 2,000 people had been arrested.

Tens of thousands of people, some of whom were reported to be wearing clubs and shields, have taken to the streets in recent days in the worst protests in the country since gaining independence from the Soviet Union three decades ago.

The demonstrations began at nearly doubling of prices for one type of vehicle fuel, but reflect widespread discontent in the country, which has been ruled by a single party since independence.

In a concession, the government on Thursday announced a 180-day price limit on vehicle fuels and a moratorium on increase in utility rate. It was not clear what effect the move would have.

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has hesitated amid attempts to pacify protesters, including accepting the resignation of his government and promising drastic measures to end the unrest, which he has blamed on a “terrorist band”.

Severe disruptions to internet and cellphone service made it difficult and sometimes impossible to get the news of what was happening inside Kazakhstan. Airports in Almaty and another city were closed.

Concerns grew after Tokayev called on a Russian-led military coalition for help that broader action could be on the horizon.

The coalition, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, includes the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Belarus, Armenia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The operation is its first military action, a sign that Kazakhstan’s neighbors, particularly Russia, are concerned that unrest could spread.

Russia and Kazakhstan have close ties and share a border of 4,700 miles (7,600 km), much of it with open plains. Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome Space Center is in Kazakhstan.

The general secretary of the CSTO, Stanislav Zass, told Russia’s RIA-Novosti news agency that the number of full contingents sent as peacekeepers would be around 2,500.

He rejected suggestions of “absolute folly” that the soldiers would act as capturers rather than peacekeepers. “The sincere desire of our states is a real help to Kazakhstan in a difficult situation,” he said.

However, White House press secretary Jane Pasaki said the US “has questions about the nature of this request and whether or not it was a valid invitation.”

“The world will, of course, be watching for any violations of human rights and actions that may predate for the seizure of Kazakh institutions,” she said.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric called on security forces to “show restraint and protect the rights of the people”.

Tokayev has imposed a nationwide state of emergency and banned religious services. This is a blow to Kazakhstan’s large Orthodox Christian population, which celebrates Christmas on Fridays.

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