Kazakhstan says situation stabilising, Russian-led forces at key facilities

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·5-min read
Almaty amid tightened security following mass protests in Kazakhstan
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By Olzhas Auyezov and Tamara Vaal

ALMATY (Reuters) - Kazakhstan's authorities said on Sunday the situation was stabilising after the worst political unrest in 30 years of independence, and that troops from a Russian-led military alliance were guarding key facilities.

Security officials told President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in a briefing they were continuing "clean-up" operations across the oil and uranium-producing ex-Soviet republic that borders Russia and China.

Thousands have been detained and public buildings torched during mass anti-government protests over the past week. Tokayev issued shoot-to-kill orders to end unrest he has blamed on bandits and terrorists.

State TV channel Khabar 24 reported 164 people had been killed during the clashes, without going into details. The internet has been restricted and telecoms patchy making it difficult to check figures and confirm statements. No single group has emerged to speak for the protesters.

At Tokayev's invitation, a Russia-led alliance of ex-Soviet states - the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) - sent troops to restore order, an intervention that comes at a time of high tension in Russia-U.S. relations ahead of talks this week 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.

Russian paratrooper commander Andrey Serdyukov said the force had finished deploying to Kazakhstan and would remain there until the situation stabilised completely.

Serdyukov said the troops were guarding important military, state and socially-important sites in major city Almaty and nearby areas. He did not identify the facilities.

Unconfirmed social media videos showed troops arriving at Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome, which has been key to ally Russia's space programme for decades.

The deployments signal resolute Kremlin backing for the Kazakh authorities in a region Moscow sees as vital to its security along its southern flank.

"The counter-terrorist operation ... will be continued until the complete elimination of the terrorists," Deputy Defence Minister Sultan Gamaletdinov said.

"The situation has been stabilised in all regions of the country," the presidential office said, adding law enforcement agencies had seized back control of administrative buildings.

BLOW TO IMAGE

What began a week ago with demonstrations against a fuel price rise exploded into a wider protest against Tokayev's government and the man he replaced as president, Nursultan Nazarbayev https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/powerful-ex-leader-nazarbayev-is-main-target-kazakhs-anger-2022-01-05.

The violence has dealt a blow to Kazakhstan's image as a tightly controlled and stable country, which it has used to attract hundreds of billions of dollars of Western investment in its oil and minerals industries.

It has spurred speculation of a deep rift in the ruling elite, with Tokayev fighting to consolidate his authority after sacking key officials and removing Nazarbayev from a powerful role as head of the Security Council.

The former intelligence chief and two-time prime minister Karim Massimov, seen as close to Nazarbayev, has been arrested on suspicion of treason but authorities have not disclosed any details of the allegations against him.

State television took the unusual step at the top of its hourly news bulletin of underlining that Tokayev was "the highest official of the state, the chairman of the Security Council. In this capacity he takes decisions independently."

In a statement meant to quash talk of a rift, Nazarbayev's spokesman said Nazarbayev had been in the capital Nur-Sultan throughout the crisis and chose himself to hand his security council post to Tokayev.

"(He) and the head of state have always been 'on the same side of the barricades'... In these difficult days they have demonstrated the monolithic nature of state power for all of us," the statement said, calling for people to rally around Tokayev.

Tokayev is likely to name new government members when he addresses parliament on Tuesday, his spokesman said.

Police said 6,044 people had been arrested in connection with the unrest.

State television said two soldiers were among those killed, and 163 had been wounded. As security operations continued, it said about 400 people had been arrested in the city of Shymkent near the border with Uzbekistan.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and other leaders of CSTO countries will hold an online video conference on Monday to discuss Kazakhstan, the Kremlin said.

CASH MACHINES GUTTED

In Almaty, the biggest city where much of the violence was concentrated, normal life appeared to be returning on Sunday.

Security forces have set up checkpoints around the city. Smashed windows, gutted cash machines and torched buildings bore witness to the destruction.

The main Republic Square where the charred mayor's office is located remained sealed off. One road leading to it was cordoned off by police; another was blocked by a burnt-out bus.

Reuters saw two military vehicles with mounted machine guns driving towards the square. Most of dozens of civilian and police cars torched during the unrest had been removed.

A spokesman for supermarket chain Magnum said 15 of its 68 stores in Almaty had been looted.

Staff at a shopping mall told Reuters that video cameras showed looters attacking an ATM, changing into stolen clothes at the stores and walking out wearing two or three coats.

Yerkin Zhumabekov, a mall manager, said: "They arrived in cars with no number plates at night, they destroyed everything. They took everything they could, shoes, clothes, cosmetics."

(Reporting by Olzhas Auzeyov, Tamara Vaal, Mariya Gordeeva Robin Paxton, writing by Mark Trevelyan and Tom Balmforth, Editing by Louise Heavens, Frank Jack Daniel and Andrew Heavens)

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