Kazakhstan: More than 160 killed, 5,000 arrested during riots

Fuel price rises sparked the unrest a week ago in provincial areas but the violence quickly reached large cities.

Police officers detain a demonstrator during a protest in Almaty, Kazakhstan
Police officers detain a demonstrator during a protest in Almaty, Kazakhstan, last week [Vladimir Tretyakov/AP]

More than 160 people were killed and 5,000 arrested in the violence that shook Kazakhstan over the past week, according to officials.

The interior ministry, quoted on Sunday by local media, said initial estimates put property damage at about 175 million euros ($198m). More than 100 businesses and banks were attacked and looted and about 400 vehicles destroyed, it added.

A total of 164 people, including two children, were killed in the deadliest outbreak of violence in the country’s 30 years of independence, Russia’s Sputnik news agency cited the health ministry as saying on Sunday.

It said 103 people had died in Kazakhstan’s main city of Almaty, where the worst of the unrest took place.

On Sunday, a relative calm appeared to return to the country’s economic hub, with police sometimes firing shots into the air to stop people approaching its central square.

“Today the situation is stabilised in all regions of the country,” Interior Minister Erlan Turgumbayev said, adding nonetheless “the counterterror operation is continuing in a bid to re-establish order in the country”.

In total, 5,135 people have been detained for questioning as part of 125 separate investigations into the unrest, the interior ministry said

Al Jazeera’s Robin Forestier-Walker, who has covered Kazakhstan, said the death toll was expected to increase.

“We are waiting for the body count to rise based on the scale of the fighting, the violence, and the shooting – heavy machine gun fire and explosions that went on for hours and hours during January 5 and 6,” he said.

“To add to that, the so-called anti-terrorism operation is still continuing across the country – so a very big operation going on with the Kazakh government attempting to take back control of the situation.”

Shoot-to-kill policy

The crisis was sparked a week ago in western provincial areas by a fuel price increase, but protests quickly reached large cities, including Almaty, where riots erupted. In response, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev issued shoot-to-kill orders to end the unrest he has blamed on what he terms “bandits and terrorists”.

At Tokayev’s invitation, the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) sent troops to restore order, an intervention that comes at a time of high tension in Russia-United States relations ahead of new talks on the Ukraine crisis.

“A number of strategic facilities have been transferred under the protection of the united peacekeeping contingent of the CSTO member states,” the presidential office said in a statement detailing a security briefing chaired by Tokayev.

It did not identify the facilities.

Bruce Pannier, journalist with Radio Free Europe, said Tokayev’s decision to call in Russian military forces would be perceived as a “sign of weakness” by the Kazakh people.

“One can sort of understand that he wanted to free up his own security forces to put down what he says are essentially terrorist attacks and an attempted coup – which is fairly ridiculous as there are definitely two different groups, most of whom are peaceful protesters in Kazakhstan,” Pannier said, speaking from the Czech capital, Prague.

“But the interesting thing about this is the Collective Security Treaty Organisation that Russia leads has never actually deployed troops in any of its member states when there’s been unrest,” he continued.

“Its charter states it is not supposed to interfere unless these member states face an external threat – which Tokayev provided by calling these terrorists ‘international terrorists’ and suggesting that they were trained outside the country.”

Former leader Nursultan Nazarbayev was the longest-serving ruler of any former 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.

On Wednesday, Tokayev removed Nazarbayev as head of the country’s Security Council, a role in which he had continued to wield significant influence.

Kazakhstan’s former intelligence chief and two-time Prime Minister Karim Masimov was also arrested on Saturday on suspicion of treason.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies