President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said on Friday he had ordered security forces to open fire without warning in order to quell Kazakhstan’s worst unrest in decades, thanking Russia and its allies for their assistance in restoring order.
Tokayev said in a televised address that up to 20,000 “bandits” had attacked the financial capital Almaty and were destroying state property. He said peacekeeping forces sent from Russia and neighbouring states had arrived on Kazakhstan’s request and were in the country on a temporary basis to ensure security.
The embattled president also thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin as well as the leaders of China, Uzbekistan and Turkey for their assistance in quelling the uprising.
Earlier, Tokayev said in a statement that constitutional order had been “largely restored” across the country, adding that security operations would continue “until the total destruction of the militants”.
Armed protesters have fought running battles with government forces in Kazakhstan‘s main city Almaty, in what has long been seen as one the most stable of the ex-Soviet republics of Central Asia.
Kazakhstan’s interior ministry said on Friday that 26 “armed criminals” had been “liquidated” and more than 3,000 of them detained, while 18 police and national guard servicemen had been killed since the start of the protests this week.
Reuters correspondents saw armoured personal carriers and military servicemen in the main square of Almaty, where soldiers fired at protesters a day before.
The first units of Russian forces from a Moscow-led peacekeeping force had meanwhile arrived in Kazakhstan, the Russian defence ministry confirmed, after the Kazakhstani government appealed for help.
The peacekeeping force of the Moscow-led military alliance of ex-Soviet states will not be engaged in combat or in the “elimination of militants,” Tokayev’s administration said.
Fuel price hike
The violence has been unprecedented in a state ruled firmly since Soviet times by leader Nursultan Nazarbayev, 81, who has held on to the reins despite stepping down three years ago as president.
The uprising, which began as protests against a New Year’s Day fuel price hike, swelled on Wednesday, when protesters chanting slogans against Nazarbayev stormed and torched public buildings in Almaty and other cities. Protesters accused Nazarbayev’s family and allies of amassing vast wealth while the nation of 19 million remained poor.
Tokayev tried to head off further unrest by announcing the resignation of the cabinet early on Wednesday, but protests continued. As the unrest escalated, authorities declared a nationwide state of emergency until January 19, with curfews, restrictions on movements and bans on mass gatherings.
The government made another concession on Thursday, setting new fuel price limits for six months, saying “urgent” measures were needed “to stabilise the socio-economic situation”.
Officials said more than 1,000 people had been wounded in the unrest, with nearly 400 admitted to hospital and 62 in intensive care.
The full picture of the chaos was unclear, with widespread disruptions to communications including mobile phone signals, the blocking of online messengers and hours-long internet shutdowns.
Under increasing pressure, Tokayev appealed on Wednesday to the Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), which includes five other ex-Soviet states, to combat what he called “terrorist groups” that had “received extensive training abroad”.
Within hours the alliance said the first troops had been sent – including Russian paratroopers and military units from the other CSTO members – in its first major joint action since its founding in 1999.
The peacekeeping force will provide cover and security function, according to Kazakhstan’s presidency. It will number about 2,500 and will stay in Kazakhstan for a few days or weeks, the RIA news agency quoted the general secretary of the alliance on Thursday.
The Russian foreign ministry has described the unrest as “an attempt inspired from outside to undermine the security and integrity” of Kazakhstan.
Western countries have called for restraint on all sides, with 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 be watching for any violation of human rights,” Price said.
France-based Kazakhstani opposition leader Mukhtar Ablyazov said that the country’s ruling regime was nearing its end.
“It is only a question now of how long,” the former energy minister told AFP in an interview.
“Literally in three days a revolution took place, and it is really a revolution in the public consciousness… people understood that they are not weak.”