MOSCOW (AP) — Kazakhstan’s president on Friday authorized security forces to shoot to kill those taking part in the unrest, opening the door for a dramatic escalation over anti-government demonstrations that had turned violent.
The Central Asian nation experienced its worst street protests this week since gaining independence from the Soviet Union three decades ago, leaving dozens dead. Demonstrations began when prices for one type of vehicle fuel nearly doubled, but soon spread across the country, reflecting widespread dissatisfaction with the authoritarian regime.
In a televised address to the nation, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev used harsh rhetoric, referring to those involved in the unrest as “terrorists,” “robbers” and “terrorists” – although it was unclear whether What did the peaceful protests first gather steam and then descend into violence. So far no protesting leader has come forward.
Read more: Dozens killed, thousands arrested in violent demonstrations in Kazakhstan
“I have ordered law enforcement and the military to shoot to kill without warning,” Tokayev said. “Those who do not surrender will be eliminated.”
Concerns grew in recent days that an even wider crackdown could be in place, as internet and cellphone service was severely disrupted and sometimes completely blocked, and many airports were closed – leading to It became difficult to understand what was happening inside the country and reach out to the outside world for images of the unrest. Adding to those fears was Tokayev’s request for help from the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russian-led military alliance whose troops began arriving on Thursday.
On Friday, Kazakhstan’s interior ministry reported that 26 protesters were killed by security forces during the unrest, which escalated sharply on Wednesday. Another 26 were injured and more than 3,800 people have been detained. A total of 18 law enforcement officers were killed, and more than 700 were injured.
The numbers could not be independently verified, and it was unclear whether more people would have died in the scuffle as the protests turned violent, with people storming government buildings and setting them on fire.
More clashes were reported in Almaty on Friday morning. Russia’s state news agency Tass reported that the fire broke out in a building occupied by the Kazakh branch of the Mir broadcaster, funded by several former Soviet states.
But life started returning to normal in other parts of the country. On Friday morning, news reports said internet had been partially restored in the capital, Nur-Sultan, but it was not clear how long.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov said Almaty airport – previously attacked and seized by protesters – was back under the control of Kazakh law enforcement and CTSO forces. But the facility will remain closed until at least Sunday, Kazakh TV channel Khabar 24 reported, citing airport spokespersons.
Hours before authorizing the use of deadly force against those taking part in the unrest, Tokayev indicated that peace had been restored to some extent, adding that “local authorities are in control of the situation.”
Tokayev has evacuated amid attempts to pacify protesters – including issuing a 180-day price cap on vehicle fuels and a moratorium on utility rates – and promising drastic measures to quell the unrest.
As he vowed a strong response, he pleaded for help from the CSTO alliance. Kazakh media quoted foreign ministry officials as saying that a total of 2,500 troops had arrived so far, all of them in Almaty.
Kazakh officials have insisted that the troops of the coalition, which includes several former Soviet republics, will not fight the demonstrators, but will defend government institutions. It was not immediately clear whether foreign troops deployed so far were involved in suppressing the unrest.
Watch: Kazakhstan government resigns amid violent protests over fuel prices
The involvement of CSTO forces is a sign that Kazakhstan’s neighbors, particularly Russia, are concerned that unrest could spread.
In his address to the nation, Tokayev reiterated his allegations that “foreign actors” helped stir up turmoil with “independent media”.
He provided no evidence for those claims, but such rhetoric has often been used by former Soviet countries, most prominently Russia and Belarus, which sought to suppress large-scale anti-government demonstrations in recent years. Was.
Kazakhstan, a region the size of Western Europe, borders Russia and China and sits on top of vast reserves of oil, natural gas, uranium and precious metals that make it strategically and economically important – and the crisis has left many Worried in the quarters.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said she was following developments with “great concern”, while French President Emmanuel Macron called for de-escalation.
Germany’s foreign ministry spokesman Christopher Berger said officials were investigating reports of an order to shoot Tokayev. From Germany’s point of view, “it must be said very clearly that the use of lethal force against civilians can only be a last resort, especially if military forces are deployed.”
But China appeared to increase its support for Kazakhstan’s government on Friday.
Kazakhstan is a key component in China’s “Belt and Road” overland connections with Europe and continued unrest in the country could dent Beijing’s hopes for closer trade and political ties with the continent.
Chinese President Xi Jinping expressed his condolences to Tokayev over the “massive riots”, praising him for “decisively taking strong measures at critical moments and defuse the situation quickly”.
“As a brother and a long-term strategic partner, China stands ready to provide the necessary assistance within its means to help Kazakhstan overcome this difficult period,” Xi said.
Despite Kazakhstan’s vast resource wealth, discontent over poor living conditions in some parts of the country remains strong. Many Kazakhs also dispute the dominance of the ruling party, which holds more than 80% of the seats in parliament.
Associated Press writers Jim Heintz in Moscow, Geir Moulson in Berlin and Samuel Petrequin in Brussels contributed to this report.