Police in Kazakhstan have killed dozens of protesters who tried to storm government buildings as a Russia-led military alliance approved a peacekeeping force to the Central Asian country in a bid to quell nationwide unrest.
Saltanet Azirbek, spokeswoman for the Kazakh police, told Khabar 24 television channel on Thursday that “extremist forces” had attempted overnight to enter administrative buildings and police departments in the country’s largest city, Almaty.
“The dozens of attackers were eliminated, their identities are being established,” she said.
The casualties came as protests continued in Kazakhstan.
The demonstrations were sparked by rising fuel prices but have since boiled over into the biggest protests since the vast ex-Soviet nation gained independence in 1991.
Hundreds of protesters rallied in Almaty’s main square on Thursday, despite the presence of troops and armoured personnel carriers.
A Reuters news agency journalist on the scene reported hearing gunshots as the troops approached the crowds.
Kazakh president appeals to CSTO
Thursday’s chaos comes a day after demonstrators stormed the presidential palace and the mayor’s office in Almaty and set both on fire. Crowds also briefly overran the Almaty airport on Wednesday, prompting several flight cancellations.
Unverified video on social media showed troops patrolling Almaty’s foggy streets overnight, firing weapons, as well as widespread looting in the city.
The Kazakh interior ministry said at least eight police and national guard troops had been killed in the unrest while 300 were injured.
As tensions escalated, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev late on Wednesday appealed for help from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Moscow-based alliance of six former Soviet countries – Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Tokayev has blamed foreign-trained “terrorist” gangs for the violent protests.
CSTO’s chairman, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, said on Thursday that the alliance has now approved sending an unspecified number of troops to Kazakhstan.
In a statement on Facebook, Pashinyan said the troops will be sent “for a limited period with the aim of stabilisation and normalisation of the situation” in Kazakhstan.
He also blamed “outside interference” for the mass protests, which began after price caps on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), a fuel used by the poor to power their cars, were lifted.
The rallies have since morphed into anti-government riots, feeding off deep-seated resentment over three decades of rule by former president Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Nazarbayev, 81, stepped down in 2019 but remains a political force and his family is believed to control much of the economy, the largest in Central Asia. He has not been seen or heard from since the protests began.
State television reported on Thursday that the National Bank of Kazakhstan had decided to suspend working in banks in the country for the safety of their workers, while Middle Eastern carriers FlyDubai and Air Arabia said they have cancelled flights to Almaty.
The Kazakh president had earlier promised to take harsh measures in response to the protests 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.
The emergency decree imposed an overnight curfew and restricted movement in to and around urban areas.
Tokayev also sacked the country’s cabinet, a move that did little to ease dissent.
As tensions escalated on Wednesday night, Kazakh news sites became inaccessible and the global watchdog organisation 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.