MOSCOW – Troops from a Russian-led military alliance arrived in Kazakhstan on Thursday to restore order after protests in the central Asian country turned violent, with police reporting dozens of anti-government protesters were killed and hundreds injured.
The crisis in the oil-rich country marks the biggest challenge yet for the country’s president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, in power for less than three years, and also threatens to destabilize an already volatile region. Tokayev called for the Russian-led intervention.
Foreign soldiers were dispatched after the town hall of Almaty, the country’s largest city and former capital, was set on fire on Wednesday, and the airport was overrun by angry mobs. The violence spread throughout the night. Police opened fire on the demonstrators, some of them armed, but also accused them of killing 18 law enforcement officers and soldiers, and injuring 750.
Throughout Thursday, continued clashes were reported in Almaty, with police saying they were “cleaning the town of militants”. Heavy gunfire echoed through the city. People crouching in their homes posted videos of smoke billowing from buildings in the city.
On Thursday evening, the Home Affairs Ministry said it had regained control of all government buildings in Almaty.
Reports of the deaths could not immediately be independently confirmed.
Kazakhstan, the world’s largest landlocked country, has some of the largest oil fields on the planet and more than 40% of the world’s uranium production. But the average salary in Kazakhstan is equivalent to $ 570 per month, according to government statistics, and many are angry at the socio-economic disparities, which have been made worse by the pandemic.
The Russian-led effort to quell the unrest, described as a temporary peacekeeping mission by the military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, will be time-limited and will aim to protect government buildings and military items, the group said in a statement.
The group has sent around 2,500 troops to Kazakhstan, and that number could increase, its secretary general told Russian news agency RIA Novosti. He wouldn’t say if they had been sent only to Almaty or to other towns as well.
This is the first time in the history of the alliance, which is the Russian version of NATO, that its protection clause is invoked.
Russian state media published videos of Russian troops boarding military planes and others heading to Kazakhstan in armored vehicles.
Almaty police spokesman Saltanat Azirbek said dozens of people were “wiped out” by authorities when they attempted to storm government buildings and district headquarters and offices. police, the first widespread deaths since the start of the protests.
Authorities reported that in addition to those killed, around 1,000 people were injured and up to 400 were hospitalized. As of Thursday, around 2,000 people were arrested in Almaty, the Kazakh interior ministry said in a statement read on state television. Two of the security personnel who were killed were beheaded, the Almaty commander’s office said in a statement released by Khabar-24, Kazakhstan’s state news channel. Protesters also surrounded two hospitals in the city, the statement said.
Police have warned people living near major government buildings to stay in their homes.