Police officers have reportedly been found beheaded in Kazakhstan amid violent riots that threaten to topple the government.
Police officers have reportedly been found beheaded in Kazakhstan and dozens of protesters killed amid violent riots that threaten to topple the government of the former Soviet republic.
The protests, sparked by a sharp rise in fuel prices in the Central Asian country, have rapidly escalated since Sunday, with armed protesters fighting running battles with security forces.
Russia has sent troops to help quell the unrest, as the United States has warned that the world is watching Moscow’s actions.
An internet blackout means it is difficult for monitoring groups to confirm what is happening inside the country.
‘Shoot to kill’ in Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan’s president on Friday rejected calls for talks with protesters after days of unprecedented unrest, vowing to destroy “armed bandits” and authorising his forces to shoot to kill without warning.
In a hardline address to the nation, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev also gave “special thanks” to Russian President Vladimir Putin after a Moscow-led military alliance sent troops to Kazakhstan to help quell the unrest.
Security forces had blocked off strategic areas of Almaty — the country’s largest city and epicentre of the recent violence — and were firing into the air if anyone approached, an AFP correspondent said.
Elsewhere the city was like a ghost town, with banks, supermarkets and restaurants closed. The few small shops still open were fast running out of food.
Tokayev said order had mostly been restored across the country, after protests this week over fuel prices escalated into widespread violence.
“Terrorists continue to damage property… and use weapons against civilians. I have given the order to law enforcement to shoot to kill without warning,” Tokayev said in his third televised address this week.
He ridiculed calls from abroad for negotiations as “nonsense”. “We are dealing with armed and trained bandits, both local and foreign. With bandits and terrorists. So they must be destroyed. This will be done shortly
Horror as police officer found beheaded
According to Russian-language news website The Insider, the Kazakh Ministry of Internal Affairs has said 18 security officials have been killed, 748 people have been wounded and 2298 people have been detained, Newsweek reports.
The Insider, citing Kazakhstan state-run outlet Khabar-24, said the decapitated body of a police officer had been discovered.
Associated Press also reported a police officer had been beheaded, while Agence France-Presse (AFP) put the number at two.
Regime nearing end in ‘revolution’
The regime that has ruled Kazakhstan since the fall of the Soviet Union is nearing its end in a popular revolution where people have for the first time unified to express their anger, a France-based opposition leader said on Thursday.
Mukhtar Ablyazov, a former energy minister and bank chairman wanted in his home country on a range of charges, in an interview with AFP also described a Russian-led military intervention as an “occupation” and urged Kazakhs to stand up to the foreign forces.
Kazakhstan, often seen as the most stable state in Central Asia under its first post-Soviet President Nursultan Nazarbayev and his successor Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, has been riven by its most serious protests that have left dozens dead and hundreds detained.
“I think the regime is at its end. It is only a question now of how long,” Mr Ablyazov, who leads the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (QDT) party and has vociferously encouraged the protests through his social media channels, told AFP in Paris.
“Literally in three days a revolution took place, and it is really a revolution in the public consciousness … and people understood that they are not weak,” he said.
After years of discontent over economic problems, “the pent-up frustration blew up – the moment came and everything exploded”.
He said while the situation meant “no-one can say” how much longer the current regime will survive, “I think that it has maximum one more year, maybe a little more. But maybe in two weeks everything changes, no one knows.”
‘Oust the regime’
Referring to images of statues of Mr Nazarbayev being pulled down as well as Mr Tokayev’s move to sack his cabinet, Mr Ablyazov said “people now believe that if they unite they can pull down statues and force the government to resign”.
Mr Nazarbayev handed over the presidency Tokayev in 2019 but is still widely believed to have immense influence through his title of leader of the nation.
Amid uncertainty over the former strongman’s whereabouts, Mr Ablyazov said he had received information Mr Nazarbayev and his close family had fled to the United Arab Emirates capital of Abu Dhabi after his residence in Kazakhstan’s main city of Almaty was stormed.
But it was not possible to independently verify the claim.
Mr Ablyazov, who also told AFP he wanted to meet with French President Emmanuel Macron, is a hugely controversial figure who Kazakhstan has tried and sentenced in absentia for murder and embezzlement.
He is also wanted in Russia and spent time in French custody before France’s highest administrative authority in 2016 blocked his extradition to Russia ruling that the request was politically motivated.
He now lives in Paris after winning refugee status in France.
Mr Ablyazov, who headed one of Kazakhstan’s largest banks from 2005 to 2009, declared he wanted to be prime minister of the country in a new parliamentary system where there would no longer be a president.
“The temporary government that ousts the regime of Nursultan Nazarbayev will be led by me for half a year ahead of free elections,” he said.
He also urged Western countries to consider sanctions against the Kazakh leadership, noting that its elite were known to have “lots of assets” in European capitals like Paris and London.
The first units of Russian forces from a Moscow-led contingent have now arrived in Kazakhstan after Mr Tokayev appealed to the Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) for help.
Mr Ablyazov said that Russian President Vladimir Putin had been happy to assist as part of his strategy to “recreate the old USSR” but said that Kazakhs should see the presence of the foreign forces as an “occupation”.
“I am urging people to organise strikes and block roads [to protest their presence in the country],” he said.
He warned Russia that Kazakhstan risked becoming like Ukraine – where anti-Russian sentiment skyrocketed after Moscow annexed Crimea and pro-Moscow separatists seized two regions in 2014.
“The more Putin intervenes, the more Kazakhstan will become like Ukraine – an enemy state for Russia.”
US warns ‘world watching’ Russian conduct
On Thursday, the US warned Russian troops deployed to Kazakhstan against taking control of the former Soviet republic’s institutions, saying the world would watch for rights violations.
“The United States and, frankly, the world, will be watching for any violation of human rights,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.
“We will also be watching for any actions that may lay the predicate for the seizure of Kazakh institutions.”
Mr Price said he will “leave it to the government of Kazakhstan” to explain the rationale for inviting in the Russian-led CSTO.
The group’s current chairman, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, said the alliance was responding to a request due to “outside interference”.
Without addressing the allegation, Price renewed a call for Kazakhstan to take up the causes of the unrest, which was sparked by rare mass protests triggered by fuel prices.
“We hope that the government of Kazakhstan will soon be able to address problems which are fundamentally economic and political in nature,” Mr Price said, calling the United States a “partner” of the Central Asian nation.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier on Thursday called his counterpart, Mukhtar Tleuberdi, and pushed for both a peaceful resolution and respect for media freedoms.
“[Mr Blinken] reiterated the United States’ full support for Kazakhstan’s constitutional institutions and media freedom and advocated for a peaceful, rights-respecting resolution to the crisis,” Mr Price said.
He said Mr Blinken also used the call to discuss concerns about Russian troop movements near another former Soviet republic – Ukraine.
Kazakhstan, which tolerates little real opposition, is a key ally of Russia but has also sought good ties with the West and China.
A major oil and gas exporter and one of the world’s biggest producers of uranium, the country has signed lucrative deals with international energy companies.
Critics say widespread corruption has meant little of that money reaching ordinary people, with average monthly salaries in the country of less than $US600 ($840).
As the unrest continues, here’s how the once stable but repressive Central Asian country has been thrown into chaos:
LPG price hike sparks fury
Protests erupted over the weekend in the town of Zhanaozen in the oil-rich western Mangystau region over a New Year increase in prices for liquid petroleum gas (LPG), which is used for cars.
Unrest spread to the regional hub of Aktau on the ex-Soviet country’s Caspian Sea coast.
On Tuesday, thousands furious at the price rise took to the streets of Almaty, the largest city, with police firing tear gas and stun grenades.
State of emergency
Later that night, President Tokayev imposed a state of emergency in the city and in the restive west after saying he would cut the price of LPG there in a bid to assuage the protesters.
Many chanted “Old Man Out”, a reference to Mr Tokayev’s still-powerful predecessor and mentor Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Images posted on social media later showed a statue of the ex-president being torn down.
WhatsApp and other popular messaging apps like Telegram and Signal went down.
Almaty in chaos
Mr Tokayev sacked his cabinet early on Wednesday in a bid to head off the unprecedented unrest but protesters gathered again, blocking roads and storming Almaty’s local government headquarters.
The mayor’s office and the presidential residence in the city were later reportedly left in flames.
Internet and mobile phone networks were cut, with the state of emergency extended nationwide.
Mr Tokayev accused the protesters of “massive attacks on law enforcement” that left several dead and many wounded, and claimed the country was under attack by “terrorist” groups.
“I intend to act as tough as possible,” he said.
The White House and the United Nations appealed to Kazakh authorities to show “restraint”.
Appeal to Moscow
Late on Wednesday, the embattled president appealed for help to quell the protests from the Moscow-led CSTO.
Videos on social media showed pillaged shops in Almaty and automatic gunfire on the streets.
Russian-led paratroopers were dispatched.
Dozens dead, 1000 wounded
In a televised address early on Thursday, Mr Tokayev said “terrorists” were seizing buildings, infrastructure and small arms, and battling security forces.
Police said they killed “dozens” of protesters overnight as they tried to take over government buildings and police stations. Some 2000 were arrested.
Eighteen security officers have been killed and 748 wounded in the unrest, local media reported. The health ministry said 1000 people had been wounded.
In a new effort to pacify the protesters, the government set fuel price limits for six months.
But in the late afternoon, bursts of gunfire echoed through the streets of Almaty. Security forces then cleared the city’s central square, media reports said.
World calls for calm
In a chorus of concern, the UN, US, European Union, France, and the UK called on all sides to refrain from violence.
The US, UN and UK called for a “peaceful resolution”, France for “moderation” while the EU said that the sending of Russian troops “brings back memories of situations to be avoided”.