MOSCOW (AP) — A Russia-led military alliance said Thursday that it will dispatch peacekeeping forces to Kazakhstan after the country's president asked for help in controlling protests that escalated into violence, including the seizure and setting afire of government buildings.
Protesters in Kazakhstan's largest city stormed the presidential residence and the mayor's office Wednesday and set both on fire, according to news reports, as demonstrations sparked by a rise in fuel prices escalated sharply in the Central Asian nation.
Police reportedly fired on some protesters at the residence in Almaty before fleeing. They have clashed repeatedly with demonstrators in recent days, deploying water cannons in the freezing weather, and firing tear gas and concussion grenades.
The Kazakh Interior Ministry said eight police officers and national guard members were killed in the unrest and more than 300 were injured. No figures on civilian casualties were released.
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev appealed to the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Moscow-based alliance of six former Soviet countries, for assistance. Hours later, the CSTO's council approved sending an unspecified number of peacekeepers, said Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, the council's chairman.
Tokayev earlier vowed to take harsh measures to quell the unrest and declared a two-week state of emergency for the whole country, expanding one that had been announced for both the capital of Nur-Sultan and the largest city of Almaty that imposed an overnight curfew and restricted movement into and around the urban areas.
The government resigned in response over the unrest. Kazakh news sites became inaccessible late in the day, and the global watchdog organization Netblocks said the country was experiencing a pervasive internet blackout. The Russian news agency Tass reported that internet access was restored in Almaty by early Thursday.
Although the protests began over a near-doubling of prices for a type of liquefied petroleum gas that is widely used as vehicle fuel, their size and rapid spread suggested they reflect wider discontent in the country that has been under the rule of the same party since gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Tokayev claimed the unrest was led by “terrorist bands” that had received help from unspecified other countries. He also said rioters had seized five airliners in an assault on Almaty's airport, but the deputy mayor later said the airport had been cleared of marauders and was working normally.
Kazakhstan, the ninth-largest country in the world, borders Russia to the north and China to the east and has extensive oil reserves that make it strategically and economically important. Despite those reserves and mineral wealth, discontent over poor living conditions is strong in some parts of the country. Many Kazakhs also chafe at the dominance of the ruling party, which holds more than 80% of the seats in parliament.
Hours after thousands of demonstrators gathered outside the presidential residence in Almaty, Tass reported that it was on fire and that protesters, some wielding firearms, were trying to break in. Police fled from the residence after shooting at demonstrators, according to the report, which was filed from Kazakhstan.
Many of the demonstrators who converged on the mayoral office carried clubs and shields, according to earlier reports in Kazakh media. Tass later said the building was engulfed in flames.
Protesters also broke into the Almaty office of the Russia-based Mir television and radio company and destroyed some equipment, the broadcaster said. It later reported that a crowd broke into the Almaty building of the Kazakh national broadcaster.
The protests began Sunday in Zhanaozen, a city in the west where government resentment was strong in the wake of a 2011 strike by oil workers in which police fatally shot at least 15 people. They spread across the country in the following days, and on Tuesday large demonstrations broke out in Nur-Sultan and in Almaty, the former capital.
The protests appear to have no identifiable leader or demands. Many of the demonstrators shouted “old man go,” an apparent reference to Nursultan Nazarbayev, the country's first president who continued to wield enormous influence after his 2019 resignation.
In an earlier televised statement to the nation, Tokayev said that “we intend to act with maximum severity regarding law-breakers.”
He also promised to make political reforms and announced that he was assuming the leadership of the national security council. The latter is potentially significant because the council had been headed by Nazarbayev, who was president from 1991 until he resigned in 2019.
Nazarbayev dominated Kazakhstan's politics and his rule was marked by a moderate cult of personality. Critics say he effectively instituted a clan system in government.
After the demonstrations spread to Nur-Sultan and Almaty, the government announced its resignation, but Tokayev said the ministers would stay in their roles until a new Cabinet is formed, making it uncertain whether the resignations will have significant impact.
At the start of the year, prices for the gas called LPG roughly doubled as the government moved away from price controls as part of efforts to move to a market economy.
Jim Heintz, The Associated Press