At least 26 protesters dead in Kazakhstan, as Russia-led intervention begins

MOSCOW — Kazakhstan’s president said Friday he had ordered his troops to “shoot to kill without warning” in an effort to quash anti-government protests that have been raging since the weekend.

Chaotic and violent scenes persisted in the resource-rich Central Asian country of 19 million, as the first “peacekeeping” troops from a Russia-led military alliance arrived following the leader’s request for foreign intervention to deal with widespread protests over a decrepit political system and dramatic energy price hikes. A list was also created by protesters calling for political reform.

Dozens have been killed across the country so far, with authorities saying that nearly 4,000 “riot participants” had been detained and at least 18 police officers were dead.

In his speech, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said the lives of “hundreds of civilians and servicemen” had been damaged, dismissed calls “from abroad” for negotiations as “stupidity,” and vowed to crush the demonstrations.

“What negotiations could there be with criminals and murderers? Terrorists and armed bandits, local and international, were a problem. In a broadcast address, he stated that they must be defeated and would be accomplished in the “near future”.

He said that more than 20,000 bandits with “high combat readiness and animal-like cruelty” had attacked Almaty alone.

In contrast to this portrait of the demonstrators as hardened militants, several thousand demonstrated peacefully in the city of Zhanaozen, one of the first hotspots of the riots, on Friday. They issued the most specific list of demands to date, asking for a change in power, freedom for civil rights activists, and a return to a 1993 version of the constitution, which is considered to have a more democratic tone and a clearer division of power than the current one.

Tokayev also promised to “turn the Internet back on” after a nationwide blackout but warned it will be accessible only for certain periods of time and highly monitored by the government. He stated that “free access to the Internet doesn’t mean you have unlimited freedom to post your thoughts, slander, insults, incitements, and calls.”

Internet services had been severely disrupted since Wednesday, global Internet monitor NetBlocks said, with connectivity at about 5 percent of normal levels as of Friday morning.

Earlier on Friday, Tokayev had issued a statement that security forces had “mostly” regained control of the country. “The constitutional order has been basically restored in all regions.”

In recent days, protesters stormed government buildings nationwide and briefly held the Almaty airport. Hundreds of protesters gathered in Zhanaozen and Aktau, both cities located in Kazakhstan’s oil rich west, on Friday. There were also sporadic demonstrations of up to 3,000 people in other cities.

Violent clashes continued in Almaty, the country’s most populous city, as authorities carried out what they called an “anti-terrorist operation.” People gathered near a government building with signs such as “We are residents of Almaty, not terrorists.” Later, the Interior Ministry said that the square had been “cleansed,” though videos showed heavy gunfire continuing through the night.

Bodies spotted in central Almaty were slowly being removed, according to Russian newspaper RBC. According to Russian newspaper RBC, troops fired shots into the air in order to warn citizens not from approaching the government buildings in the square.

Chaotic and violent scenes persisted in Kazakhstan’s main city of Almaty on Jan. 6. (Reuters)

Russia’s Defense Ministry said Friday that 70 planes were involved in transferring units to Kazakhstan “round-the-clock” and that its troops, alongside Kazakh security forces, had full control of the Almaty airport.

Earlier, Moscow had posted video footage and photos of the country’s troops preparing to enter its Central Asian neighbor as the protests entered their sixth day. The public dissatisfaction over fuel prices has become a significant challenge for a system that is largely unchanged three decades after independence.

After receiving a Wednesday request from Tokayev, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) dispatched some 2,500 peacekeepers to the country, the group’s secretary general told Russian state news agency RIA. As of Thursday, Russian troops had been on the ground.

Stanislav Zas, the CSTO official, said the forces were there to protect infrastructure — Russia leases a rocket launch site in Kazakhstan — and would not be used to disperse demonstrations.

Moscow has in the past deployed peacekeepers to countries that Russian President Vladimir Putin fears are slipping out of his political orbit, which extends to many former Soviet states. These troops are used to support pro-Russian separatist groups, according to leaders in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova.

President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, whose troops will be part of the CSTO intervention, told state media Thursday that demonstrators had tried to seize control of major airports in Kazakhstan to block the deployment of the alliance’s forces.

While the CSTO has long been seen as Russia’s answer to NATO, its first joint action is against domestic unrest rather than combating an attack from an external force. However, Kazakhstan and other bloc members have tried to portray the intervention as an attempt to defend the state from “foreign terrorist gangs.” They have not provided any evidence.

The United States is monitoring the Moscow-led deployment and looking out for reports of potential human rights violations, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a Thursday briefing.

The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, tweeted that “rights and security of civilians must be guaranteed. External military assistance brings back memories of situations to be avoided.”

China, however, has come out firmly in support of Tokayev, the Kazakhstan president, with leader Xi Jinping calling him to say that China firmly supported the country’s stability and rejected any attempts by “external forces” to provoke unrest or so-called “color revolutions” in the country.

China, which shares a land border with Kazakhstan, has invested billions in the country’s energy sector. Color revolutions refer to protests in Eastern Europe in the 2000s that overthrew pro-Russian governments that some see as instigated by Western nations.

Tokayev declared a two-week national state of emergency Wednesday, instituting an overnight curfew as well as a ban on mass gatherings. These restrictions were placed as the large Orthodox Christian nation of Kazakhstan was preparing to celebrate Christmas Friday.

Kazakh authorities have oscillated between cracking down on protesters and giving in to some demands. On Thursday, they announced a 180-day cap on the price of vehicle fuel. After the price cap was lifted on liquefied petroleum gases, like propane, that powers many vehicles in West Kazakhstan, protests began.

Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said on Jan. 5 that he asked a Russia-led military alliance for help to quell anti-government protests. (Reuters)

Oil and gas production, a significant part of Kazakhstan’s economy, has stuttered as the unrest continues. Chevron USA, the US energy giant, announced Thursday that half of its joint venture, Tengiz Oil Field, was cut due to protests.

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