Security forces appeared to have retaken control of Kazakhstan’s main city after days of violence as the Russian-backed president said he ordered his troops to shoot to kill to put down a countrywide uprising.
A day after Moscow sent troops to help quell protests, police were patrolling the debris-strewn streets of Almaty on Friday, although some gunfire could still be heard.
Dozens have died and public buildings across Kazakhstan have been ransacked and torched in the worst violence the former Soviet republic has experienced in 30 years of independence.
Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev blamed foreign-trained terrorists for the unrest, without providing evidence.
“The militants have not laid down their arms, they continue to commit crimes or are preparing for them,” Tokayev, 68, said in a televised address.
“Whoever does not surrender will be destroyed. I have given the order to law enforcement agencies and the army to shoot to kill, without warning.”
The demonstrations began as a response to a fuel price increase but swelled into a broad movement against the government and former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the 81-year-old longest-serving ruler of any ex-Soviet state until he turned over the presidency to Tokayev in 2019.
His family is widely believed to have retained influence in Nur-Sultan, the purpose-built capital that bears his name.
Al Jazeera’s Robin Forestier-Walker, reporting from Georgia, said Tokayev’s televised address included “very aggressive … fighting talk”.
“There was very little in the way of sympathy for those who are protesting and demanding democratic reforms … and reforms to the country that will help them and ordinary people enjoy the benefits that they should be getting from Kazakhstan’s oil-rich economy,” said Forestier-Walker.
Maxim Suchkov, a non-resident expert at the Moscow-headquartered Russian International Affairs Council, said both the scale and violent nature of the unrest suggests there is a “mixed bag” of actors involved.
“That includes some people who are genuinely disgruntled, but also some forces who, according to the Kazakhstani leadership, have received advanced training,” Suchkov told Al Jazeera from the Russian capital, Moscow.
Russian forces secure airport
Russian President Vladimir Putin has discussed the situation with Tokayev in several phone calls during the crisis, the Kremlin said on Friday.
Moscow said more than 70 planes were ferrying Russian troops into Kazakhstan, and that these were now helping control Almaty’s main airport, recaptured on Thursday from protesters.
The uprising has prompted a military intervention by Moscow at a time of high tension in East-West relations as Russia and the United States gear up for talks next week on the Ukraine crisis.
Moscow’s swift deployment demonstrated Putin’s readiness to use force to maintain influence in the former Soviet Union, at a time when he has also alarmed the West by massing troops near Ukraine, whose Crimean peninsula Russia seized in 2014.
The mission falls under the umbrella of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), comprising Russia and five ex-Soviet allies. The organisation said its forces would number about 2,500.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that Kazakhstan will find it difficult to lower Russian influence after inviting in troops to quell unrest.
“I think one lesson in recent history is that once Russians are in your house, it’s sometimes very difficult to get them to leave,” Blinken told reporters.
‘We hear explosions’
Armoured personnel carriers and troops occupied the main square in Almaty, where fresh gunfire was heard on Friday.
Unrest has been reported in other cities, but the internet has been shut off since Wednesday, making it difficult to determine the extent of the violence.
In Aktau, a city on the Caspian Sea in western Kazakhstan, some 500 protesters gathered peacefully on Friday in front of a government building to call for Tokayev’s resignation, a witness told the news agency Reuters.
The protesters in Almaty appear mainly to come from the city’s poor outskirts or surrounding towns and villages. The violence has come as a shock to urban Kazakhs, used to comparing their country favourably to more repressive and volatile ex-Soviet Central Asian neighbours.
“At night when we hear explosions, I am scared,” a woman named Kuralai told Reuters. “It hurts to know that young people are dying. This has clearly been planned … probably our government has relaxed somewhat.”
In a state where scant political opposition is tolerated, no high-profile leaders of the protest movement have emerged to issue any formal demands.
The interior ministry said 26 “armed criminals” had been “liquidated“, while 18 police and national guard members had been killed. Those figures appeared not to have been updated since Thursday. State TV reported more than 3,800 arrests.