Demonstrators have forced their way into a government building in Kazakhstan’s biggest city as rare nationwide protests that began over a sharp rise in fuel prices extended into a fourth day.
Armed with clubs and metal bars, protesters stormed into the mayor’s office in Almaty on Wednesday, according to local news website Zakon.kz.
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An Instagram live stream by a Kazakh blogger showed a fire blazing at the office while gunshots could be heard nearby.
A crowd was seen gathering outside the building against a backdrop of stun grenade explosions, which were reportedly set off by security forces.
Meanwhile, thousands massed outside the presidential residence in the city. A fire at the city prosecutor’s office also was reported.
Almaty’s police chief, Kanat Taimerdenov, blamed the unrest on “extremists and radicals”, adding that protesters had assaulted 500 civilians and ransacked hundreds of businesses.
Police, National Guard and military units were involved in the security response.
More than 200 people have been arrested since the protests began.
On Wednesday afternoon, many Kazakh news sites became inaccessible. The global internet monitor Netblocks said the country was experiencing a widespread internet blackout.
State of emergency
In a failed attempt at quelling the crisis, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who has blamed foreign “provocateurs” for the protests, sacked Kazakhstan’s government early on Wednesday and declared a state of emergency in Almaty and the surrounding province, with a curfew and movement restrictions.
A state of emergency was also later declared in Nur-Sultan.
Dissent in the vast Central Asian nation, which is about the size of Western Europe, started rising over the weekend after price caps on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) were lifted.
Many Kazakhs have converted their cars to run on LPG because of its low cost, but prices more than doubled after the caps were raised.
Bruce Pannier, a Central Asia correspondent for Radio Free Europe and an expert on the region, told Al Jazeera that the recent demonstrations in the former Soviet republic had “caught everyone by surprise”.
“As these protests tend to do, they started for economic reasons … but quickly took a political angle, where people started calling for free elections for local officials and the ouster of top officials,” he said.
“They’re working to get this under control as much as they can [but] it’s going to hurt the reputation of the Kazakh government.”
Despite the government’s resignation, all ministers will remain in their posts until a new Cabinet is formed – and it remained unclear if the move would result in policy changes or have any effect of the growing protests.
Tokayev has now ordered members and provincial governors to reinstate price controls on LPG, and broaden them to gasoline, diesel and other “socially important” consumer goods.
He has also demanded the acting government develop a personal bankruptcy law and consider freezing utility prices and subsidising rent payments for poor families.
Russia, which shares a 7,640-kilometre border (4750 miles) with Kazakhstan, said on Wednesday that the Central Asian nation could solve its own problems and urged against foreign interference, RIA news agency reported.
Moscow is acutely sensitive to unrest in former Soviet republics it regards as part of its sphere of influence, and in the past has accused the West of stoking revolutions in countries such as Georgia and Ukraine.
Protests spread nationwide
Kazakhstan is tightly controlled and cultivates an image of political stability, helping it attract hundreds of billions of dollars of foreign investment in its oil and metals industries.
Public protests are deemed illegal and the parliament is devoid of opposition.
The current wave of rallies started in the town of Zhanaozen, in the oil-rich western Mangistau region, before fanning out to the regional hub of Aktau on the country’s Caspian Sea coast, and a worker camp used by subcontractors of Kazakhstan’s biggest oil producer, Tengizchevroil.
Atameken, Kazakhstan’s business lobby group, has reported attacks on banks, shops and restaurants.
Government buildings were also attacked in the southern cities of Shymkent and Taraz overnight, with 95 police officers wounded in clashes.
In addition to replacing Kazakhstan’s prime minister, Tokayev has appointed a new first deputy head of the National Security Committee who took over from Samat Abish, a nephew of powerful ex-President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Nazarbayev, 81, a Soviet-era Communist Party boss, ran Kazakhstan for almost 30 years before resigning abruptly in 2019 and backing Tokayev as successor.
Nazarbayev retains sweeping powers as the chairman of the security council; he has not convened the council or commented on this week’s violence.