Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has vowed an uncompromising crackdown on protesters in the country, telling security forces they should “use lethal force without warning” against protesters he called ” bandits and terrorists “.
Relative calm returned to Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city and the center of recent turmoil, on Friday, with some locals venturing out for the first time in days. They found looted shops, shattered glass, and numerous cars set on fire, with the grim atmosphere intensified by the thick haze enveloping the city.
Police returned to the streets of the center for the first time since clashes turned violent and protesters took over government buildings. The army had cordoned off a plaza where clashes had taken place earlier in the week, and gunshots rang out from time to time.
The Interior Ministry said 26 protesters were killed in the clashes along with 18 police and security forces. Witness reports of shootings and casualties suggest the actual numbers could be considerably higher. More than 3,800 people have been arrested, the ministry said.
In a televised address on Friday, Tokayev said he had personally ordered the use of lethal force in recent days, and also criticized the “so-called free media” for helping to stir up the unrest.
“Abroad, calls are being made to both parties to hold negotiations for a peaceful resolution,” he said. “What stupidity. What kind of negotiations can you have with criminals? We were dealing with armed and well-prepared bandits, local and foreign. Bandits and terrorists, who should be destroyed. It will happen in the nearest time.
Promising that the crackdown would continue, Tokayev said he had created a special interagency group to track down violent protesters. He claimed that “all demands formulated in a peaceful form have been heeded”, but appeared to dismiss many of the protesters as criminals, saying “20,000 bandits” were involved in Almaty alone. This suggested that a full-scale operation could be launched to hunt down others.
The protests were sparked this week by a sudden rise in fuel prices combined with long-standing frustrations over the country’s political and economic situation. Peaceful protests turned violent on Wednesday, with crowds seizing government buildings and widespread looting.
Tokayev’s response included accepting the government’s resignation and announcing fixed fuel prices, but also ordering repression. Almaty Airport is closed to all traffic except military until at least Sunday, and is guarded by “peacekeeping forces” sent by Russia and other Security Treaty Organization countries. collective (OTSC).
With reliable information scarce and rumors numerous, confusion reigned in Almaty as to the exact sequence of events in recent days. Many said the first peaceful protests appeared to have been toppled by apparently well-organized riot groups, especially on Wednesday when police appeared to leave key city facilities unprotected.
Almaty-based journalist Ardak Bukeeva said she spoke to several people who said they were shot as they stood peacefully in Almaty Republic Square on Thursday evening. On Friday, an employee at one of the city’s hospitals told him that “scores of” gunshot wounds had been admitted. Officially, the hospitals did not give any information on the number of people treated.
The communications breakdown, coupled with the shutdown of the country’s banking system, made it difficult for many people to contact relatives or buy food, as shops were closed, bank cards were not working and the streets were unsafe. .
A group on the Telegram messaging app offered to help people connect with loved ones. Its founder said she has received more than 2,000 requests, including from Kazakhs stranded abroad, people with missing relatives and hospital doctors trying to find the relatives of a policeman in intensive care.
Mobile internet and telephone service slowly returned on Friday, although in Almaty they were still sporadic.
In his speech, Tokayev thanked Russia for sending troops but said they had not taken part in any combat. The Russian Defense Ministry said Russian peacekeepers were guarding key infrastructure sites. The ministry said 75 planes were used to transport troops and equipment to Kazakhstan. The force totals around 2,500 people, the regional alliance said.
The Kremlin said on Friday that Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the situation in Kazakhstan with Tokayev in several phone calls. Chinese President Xi Jinping praised Tokayev for “taking decisive firm action at critical times and quickly calming the situation.” Meanwhile, the West’s response has been low-key, an unspoken admission that it has little influence over events in the country at a time when diplomatic attention is focused on deterring a Russian incursion into Ukraine.
Tokayev insisted there was “foreign support” for the protests, a claim he used to call for the deployment of the CSTO, and an accusation frequently made by autocratic leaders of the region about the protest movements. He has so far provided no evidence of foreign support.
Some analysts suggest that in addition to the violence on the streets, there could be a behind-the-scenes battle between different factions of the country’s elite. Nursultan Nazarbayev, the country’s first president who reigned from independence in 1991 to 2019 and chose Tokayev as his successor, has not been seen in public since the New Year. Much of the anger over the past week has been directed at him, and there are rumors he may have left the country.