Kazakhstan’s president has imposed a three-week state of emergency in an oil town where at least 10 people were killed in a clash between police and demonstrators.
Authorities said on Saturday that order had been restored in Zhanaozen, a city of 90,000 in Kazakhstan’s far southwest. The order by President Nursultan Nazarbayev allows heightened security measures including restricted access to the city and an overnight curfew.
Cellular telephone and Internet connections in Zhanaozen have been out of service since the Friday violence, making independent verification of the security situation impossible.
Kazakhstan’s foreign ministry laid responsibility for the clashes on a small group of provocateurs allegedly set on disrupting a public celebration marking the 20th anniversary of Kazakhstan’s independence.
The opposition K-Plus channel broadcast a video of what appeared to be the start of the clashes on Friday when
oil workers stormed the stage that had been erected for the celebrations.
They tipped over speakers and appeared to push officials who had been preparing for the start of a concert. Dozens of police then appeared on the scene.
“There’s a bloodbath here. It was police that was shooting,” Omirbek Isabayev, one of the striking oil workers from UzenMunaiGas, said in remarks broadcast on the Kyrgyzstan-based channel.
Askhat Daulbayev, the prosecutor-general, said earlier “a group of hooligans” attacked peaceful residents and smashed parked cars.
“Responding to demands by law-enforcement bodies to stop their unlawful actions, a group of hooligans attacked
law-enforcers, attempting to seize their weapons. They were using firearms and cold steel,” he told reporters in the capital Astana.
“Ten people were killed as a result of mass disorder. There are also some wounded, including police officers.”
He said several buildings, including the headquarters of UzenMunaiGas, had been set on fire.
Workers in Zhanaozen and other cities in the Mangistau region on the Caspian Sea have been striking for months for higher wages, in a highly unusual dispute for the Central Asian state which prides itself on its stability.
UzenMunaiGas has sacked almost 1,000 workers for striking in Zhanaozen, a city of 90,000.
The independent union Odak said in a statement that 3,000 strikers and their supporters had gathered on the central square of the city to show their discontent before the independence day ceremonies began.
‘Shocking and surprising’
Robin Forestier-Walker, a freelance journalist based in the city of Almaty, told Al Jazeera that the number of deaths “was shocking” and “surprising”.
“Western Kazakhstan is the oil hub of the country,” he said. “It has enormous oil reserves with a lot of towns built around these oil installations and Zhanaozen is one of them.
“Since the early summer, these strikers have been protesting over pay conditions and they got fired.”
Forestier-Walker said the situation appeared to be rather tense.
“There have been a number of incidents over the past few months, but this appears to have been the tipping point and it is difficult to tell what will happen next,” he said.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev has kept a tight lid on any signs of public discontent during his 20 years of rule.
In a sign that Kazakhstan’s authoritarian government were attempting to contain information on developments in Zhanaozen, internet users reported being unable to open independent news websites or Twitter.