Bursts of gunfire echoed through the streets of Kazakhstan’s largest city Thursday as Moscow-led troops arrived to help quell the mass unrest that has left dozens dead and hundreds detained.
Fighting in Almaty continued a day after protesters stormed several government buildings after an AFP correspondent heard regular eruptions of gunfire from a central plaza.
Local media reported that security forces evicted protesters from the square and other key government buildings, but there were also reports of gunfire elsewhere in the city.
Meanwhile, the first units of Russian forces from a Moscow-led peacekeeping force have arrived in Kazakhstan, the Russian Defense Ministry said, after the Kazakh government called for help.
Long regarded as one of the most stable ex-Soviet republics in Central Asia, energy-rich Kazakhstan faces its biggest crisis in decades after days of protests against rising fuel prices that have degenerated into generalized disorders.
Armed protesters have engaged in ongoing battles with government forces, with officials claiming 748 security officers were injured and 18 killed, including two with their heads severed.
Burned vehicles littered the streets of Almaty, several government buildings were in ruins and bullet casings littered the grounds of the presidential residence, which was stormed and looted by protesters on Wednesday.
“I didn’t know our people could be so terrifying,” Samal, a 29-year-old kindergarten teacher, near the residence, told AFP.
Under increasing pressure, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev overnight called on the Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization (CTSC), which includes five other states of the former Soviet Union, to fight against what he called the “terrorist groups” which had “received extensive training abroad”. .
Within hours, the alliance said the first troops had been sent – including Russian paratroopers and military units from other CSTO members – in its first major joint action since its founding in 1999.
“Peacekeeping forces (…) were sent to the Republic of Kazakhstan for a limited period in order to stabilize and normalize the situation,” the CSTO said in a statement, without specifying the number of soldiers involved. .
The Russian Foreign Ministry said it viewed the unrest as “an externally inspired attempt to undermine the security and integrity” of Kazakhstan.
In the worst violence reported to date, police said dozens of people were “wiped out” in nightly battles with security forces at government buildings in Almaty.
Over 2,000 inmates
The Home Office said police had “come forward to clean the streets” and arrested around 2,300 people so far.
Authorities said more than 1,000 people were injured in the unrest, including nearly 400 admitted to hospital and 62 in intensive care.
The protests have spread across the country by 19 million people this week, outraged by the increase in the price of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) on the New Year.
Thousands of people took to the streets in Almaty and the western province of Mangystau, claiming the price hike was unfair given the vast energy reserves of Kazakhstan’s oil and gas exporter.
The full picture of chaos was unclear, with widespread disruption in communications including cell phone signals, online messaging being blocked, and Internet shutdowns for hours on end.
The protests are the biggest threat to date to the regime established by the founding president of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev, who resigned in 2019 and chose Tokayev as his successor.
Tokayev tried to avoid further unrest by announcing the government’s resignation early Wednesday, but protests continued.
As protests escalated, authorities declared a nationwide state of emergency until January 19, with curfews, movement restrictions and bans on mass gatherings.
The government made another concession Thursday, setting new fuel price limits for six months, saying “urgent” measures were needed “to stabilize the socio-economic situation.”
Much of the anger seemed to be directed at Nazarbayev, who is 81 years old and had ruled Kazakhstan since 1989 before handing power to Tokayev.
Many protesters shouted “Old Man Out! In reference to Nazarbayev and several witnesses confirmed to AFP that a statue of the ex-leader had been demolished in the southern town of Taldykorgan.
Western countries have called for restraint on all sides, US State Department spokesman Ned Price warning Russian troops in Kazakhstan against taking control of the country’s institutions.
“The United States and, frankly, the world will monitor any human rights violations,” Price said.
France-based Kazakh opposition leader Mukhtar Ablyazov has said the ruling regime in the country is coming to an end.
“It’s just a matter of how long,” the former energy minister told AFP in an interview.
“Literally in three days a revolution has taken place, and it really is a revolution in public consciousness… people have understood that they are not weak.
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