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Kazakhstan leader authorizes forces to ‘shoot to kill without warning’ to quell protests

Broken windows of a police kiosk
The windows of a police kiosk are damaged by demonstrators during a protest in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on Wednesday.
(Vladimir Tretyakov / Associated Press)

Kazakhstan’s president authorized security forces Friday to shoot to kill those participating in unrest, whom he called “terrorists,” opening the door for a dramatic escalation in a crackdown on anti-government protests that have turned violent.

The Central Asian nation this week experienced its worst street protests since gaining independence from the Soviet Union three decades ago, and dozens have been killed in the unrest. The demonstrations began over a near-doubling of prices for a type of vehicle fuel but quickly spread across the country, reflecting wider discontent with authoritarian rule.

In a televised address to the nation, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev referred to those involved in the turmoil as “terrorists,” “bandits” and “militants” — though it is unclear how peaceful protests turned violent.

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“I have given the order to law enforcement and the army to shoot to kill without warning,” Tokayev said. “Those who don’t surrender will be eliminated.”

He also blasted calls for talks with the protesters made by some countries as “nonsense.” “What negotiations can be held with criminals, murderers?” Tokayev asked.

Amid the growing crackdown, internet service has been severely disrupted and sometimes blocked, and several airports were closed, including one in Almaty, the country’s largest city, making it difficult to get information about what’s happening inside the country. Cellphone services have been severely disrupted as well.

Intense protests have ripped through the oil-rich Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan since Sunday, with dozens of demonstrators and 12 police killed.

Tokayev has also called on a Russian-led military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, or CSTO, for help, and troops began arriving Thursday.

Kazakhstan’s Interior Ministry reported Friday that security forces have killed 26 protesters during the unrest, which escalated sharply Wednesday. Another 26 were wounded, and more than 3,800 people have been detained. Eighteen law enforcement officers were reported killed and more than 700 injured.

The numbers could not be independently verified, and it was not clear if more people died in the melee as the protests turned extremely violent, with people storming government buildings and setting them ablaze.

More skirmishes in Almaty were reported Friday morning. The Russian state news agency Tass reported that the building occupied by the Kazakh branch of the Mir broadcaster, funded by several former Soviet states, was on fire.

Few leaders have put their stamp on a country quite like Nursultan Nazarbayev, who ruled Kazakhstan with an authoritative grip for 30 years after the fall of the Soviet Union.

But the Almaty airport — stormed and seized earlier by the protesters — was back under the control of Kazakh law enforcement and CSTO forces, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Friday. The airport will remain shut until at least Sunday, local TV station Khabar-24 reported, citing the airport’s representatives.

Tokayev indicated Friday morning that some measure of calm had been restored, saying that “local authorities are in control of the situation.” Still, he added that “counter-terrorist actions” should continue.

Kazakhstan, which spans a territory the size of Western Europe, borders Russia and China and sits atop colossal reserves of oil, natural gas, uranium and precious metals that make it strategically and economically important. Despite that wealth, discontent over poor living conditions is strong in some parts of the country.

Tokayev has vacillated between trying to mollify the protesters — including issuing a 180-day price cap on vehicle fuel and a moratorium on utility rate increases — and promising harsh measures to quell the unrest.

Worries that a broader crackdown could be on the horizon grew after Tokayev called on the CSTO for help. The operation is the alliance’s first military action, an indication that Kazakhstan’s neighbors, particularly Russia, are concerned that the unrest could spread.

Kazakh officials have insisted that troops from the CSTO, which includes several former Soviet republics, will not be fighting the demonstrators, and instead will take on guarding government institutions. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the foreign troops deployed thus far were at all involved in suppressing the unrest.

In his address to the nation, Tokayev repeated his allegations that “foreign actors” along with “independent media” helped incite the turmoil.

He offered no evidence for those claims, but such rhetoric has often been used by former Soviet republics, most prominently Russia and Belarus, which have sought to suppress mass anti-government demonstrations in recent years.

The White House says President Biden has promised that the U.S. and allies will act “decisively” if Russia invades Ukraine.

Kazakh media cited Foreign Ministry officials as saying that a total of 2,500 troops from CSTO nations have arrived in Kazakhstan, and all of them were deployed to Almaty.

In other parts of the country, life started to return to normal. In the capital, Nur-Sultan, access to the internet has been partially restored, and train traffic has resumed across Kazakhstan.

Tokayev said in his address to the nation that he decided to restore internet access in some regions of the country “for certain time intervals,” without going into detail as to where exactly the access would be restored, or for how long.


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