Kazakh president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev ordered police and security forces to “shoot to kill” protesters a day after Russian-led troops arrived to help quell nationwide unrest that has left dozens dead.
It came amid mounting speculation about the whereabouts of Nursultan Nazarbayev, Mr Tokayev’s predecessor who had ruled the country for three decades.
Kazakh security forces on Friday appeared to have largely reclaimed the streets of Almaty, the country’s largest city and commercial capital, after a night of heavy shooting and stun grenade blasts.
Witnesses said some shops on the outskirts of the city were open, but key parts of the city centre had been cordoned off by soldiers in armoured personnel carriers, who fired in the air when people approached.
Kazakhstan’s interior ministry’s most recent figures, released on Thursday, said 26 “armed criminals” had been “liquidated”, while 18 police and national guard members had been killed.
It was impossible to immediately verify the reports as a nationwide Internet and media blackout remained in place. There was no information available about casualties among bystanders.
Protests against a New Year hike in the price of fuel broke out in western Kazakhstan a week ago, but quickly snowballed into a nation-wide movement demanding against the government of and former president Mr Nazarbayev.
Mr Tokayev, who assumed power in 2019 as Mr Nazabayev’s hand-picked successor, initially emphasised concessions to the protesters including by firing the government and reversing the fuel price increase.
That rhetoric changed as clashes between security forces and attacks on public buildings. On Friday morning he mocked calls for dialogue with what he called “bandits and terrorists” from Kazakhstan and overseas.
Kazakhstan declared a nationwide state of emergency after the protests Credit: Abduaziz Madyarov/AFP via Getty Images
“The militants have not laid down their arms, they continue to commit crimes or are preparing for them,” Mr Tokayev, 68, said in a televised address on Friday.
“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.”
Mr Tokayev did not provide evidence for his claim that the uprising had been preplanned by terrorists or organised from abroad.
Mukhtar Ablyazov, an exiled former banker and government minister who runs an opposition movement from France, has called for coordination of protests but has little sway inside the country. Most observers have described the demonstrations as spontaneous, ill coordinated and leaderless.
#Almaty, the Republic Square tonight: protester holding a banner “we are regular people, not terrorists”. Sign on the statute: “Peacekeepers with weapons are not peacekeepers”. #Kazakhstan is not giving up… pic.twitter.com/zU8QFNfSKF
— Bota Jardemalie ?????? (@jardemalie) January 6, 2022
Troops from the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation, which Mr Tokayev called on for support, on Wednesday night, began to fan out across the country.
Russia’s defence ministry said nine cargo planes carrying paratroopers and their equipment landed at Almaty airport on Friday, and said they would carry out “assigned tasks,” but did not give further details of their mission.
Moscow has not said exactly how many troops it is sending to Kazakhstan, although Russian media have reported the number is not expected to exceed 5000. The defence ministry said a 70-plane airlift was moving in Russian forces “around the clock”.
The Kremlin said Mr Putin had spoken to Mr Tokayev several times to discuss developments.
A Telegram channel controlled by the Belarusian government said Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, spoke to Mr Nazarbayev by telephone on Friday evening. It said they discussed events in Kazakhstan but gave no further details.
Mr Nazarbayev, who retired after 28 years in power three years ago but was thought to continue to wield considerable power as “Father of the Nation,” has not been seen since the unrest began.
Reports in local and Russian media that the 82-year old had fled the country with his family could not immediately be confirmed.
Mr Tokayev displaced him as chairman of the national security council on Wednesday, fuelling speculation that he had taken the opportunity to remove his former patron from power.
Protesters, many of whom had chanted “down with the old man” during demonstrations, celebrated that decision by pulling down statues of the former strongman.
Media reported that officials had been ordered to refer to the capital by its previous name of Astana, not Nur-Sultan, which it was renamed in Mr Nazarbayev’s honour in 2019.