Country on the brink as police 'beheaded' by protesters in uprising

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·5-min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Disturbing scenes are emerging from Kazakhstan where a violent uprising is taking place against the government, pushing the Middle Eastern country to the brink of collapse.

Fresh violence erupted in the country's main city of Almaty on Thursday (local time) as Russia sent in paratroopers to put down a countrywide uprising in one of Moscow's closest former Soviet allies.

Police in Almaty said they had killed dozens of rioters overnight into the early hours of Thursday morning. Authorities said at least 18 members of the security forces had died, including two who were found decapitated. 

More than 2,000 people have been arrested.

Security forces try to quell an uprising in Kazakhstan. Source: Getty
Security forces try to quell an uprising in Kazakhstan. Source: Getty

After a night of running street confrontations between protesters and troops, a presidential residence in the city and its mayor's office were both ablaze, and burnt out cars littered the city, Reuters journalists said.

Military personnel regained control of the main airport, seized earlier by protesters. Thursday evening saw renewed battles in Almaty's main square, occupied alternately by troops and hundreds of protesters throughout much of the day.

Reuters reporters heard explosions and gunfire as military vehicles and scores of soldiers advanced, although the shooting stopped again after nightfall. TASS news agency quoted witnesses as saying people had been killed and wounded in the new gunfire.

The Russian deployment was a gamble by the Kremlin that rapid military force could secure its interests in the oil and uranium-producing Central Asian nation, by swiftly putting down the worst violence in Kazakhstan's 30 years of independence.

Troops are seen at the main square where hundreds of people were protesting against the government, after authorities' decision to lift price caps on liquefied petroleum gas, in Almaty, Kazakhstan January 6, 2022. REUTERS/Mariya Gordeyeva
Troops are seen at the main square where hundreds of people were protesting against the government. Source: Reuters
A burned car is seen inside the Presidential Residence which was stormed by demonstrators during the protests triggered by fuel price increase in Almaty, Kazakhstan January 6, 2022. REUTERS/Pavel Mikheyev
A burned car is seen inside the Presidential Residence which was stormed by demonstrators. Source: Reuters
A view shows a damaged room inside the mayor's office building after it was stormed by demonstrators during protests triggered by fuel price increase in Almaty, Kazakhstan January 5, 2022. REUTERS/Stringer
A view shows a damaged room inside the mayor's office building after it was stormed by demonstrators. Source: Reuters

The internet was shut down across the country, disrupting bitcoin mining in one of the world's biggest crypto miners and making it impossible to gauge the extent of the unrest.

But the violence was unprecedented in a state ruled firmly since Soviet times by leader Nursultan Nazarbayev, 81, who had held on to the reins despite stepping down three years ago as president.

Nazarbayev's hand-picked successor, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, said he called in the Moscow-led military alliance of ex-Soviet states. He blamed the unrest on foreign-trained terrorists who he said had seized buildings and weapons.

"It is an attack on our citizens who are asking me... to help them urgently," he said.

Russian Defence Ministry handout showing troops and artillery headed for Kazakhstan. Source: Getty
Russian Defence Ministry handout showing troops and artillery headed for Kazakhstan. Source: Getty

Moscow said it would consult with Kazakhstan and allies on steps to support the Kazakh "counter-terrorist operation" and repeated Tokayev's assertion that the uprising was foreign-inspired. Neither Kazakhstan nor Russia provided evidence to support that.

Moscow did not disclose how many troops it was sending, and it was not possible to determine if any were involved in Thursday's unrest.

Amnesty International said the violent uprising "was a direct consequence of the authorities’ widespread repression of basic human rights" in the country.

United States 'watching very closely'

The United States said it was closely monitoring reports of the deployment and added it had questions about whether the forces were legitimately invited to the country.

"We have questions about that deployment precisely because Kazakhstan, the government of Kazakhstan... has its own resources, and the government is and has been well fortified," State Department spokesperson Ned Price said.

"We will be watching very closely for any violations of human rights and any efforts or actions on the part of foreign forces to seize Kazakh institutions," he added.

But some have been critical of America's quiet approach. 

"The silence in the UK and the US politics and media on Kazakhstan is a deeply troubling sign of increasing detachment and lack of concern about crises worldwide - from the Humanitarian horror in Afghanistan to Sudan and Ethiopia," tweeted Rory Stewart from the Yale University's Institute For Global Affairs.  

Unrest sparked by rising fuel prices

The uprising, which began as protests against a New Year's Day fuel price hike, swelled on Wednesday, when protesters chanting slogans against Nazarbayev stormed and torched public buildings in Almaty and other cities.

Tokayev initially responded by dismissing his cabinet, reversing the fuel price rise and distancing himself from his predecessor, including by taking over a powerful security post Nazarbayev had retained. But those moves failed to mollify crowds who accuse Nazarbayev's family and allies of amassing vast wealth while the nation of 19 million remained poor.

Protesters take part in a rally over a hike in energy prices in Almaty on January 5 as an uprising kicked off. Source: Getty
Protesters take part in a rally over a hike in energy prices in Almaty on January 5 as an uprising kicked off. Source: Getty

Nazarbayev stepped aside from the presidency in 2019 as the last Soviet-era Communist Party boss still ruling a former Soviet state. But he and his family kept posts overseeing security forces and the political apparatus in Nur-Sultan, the purpose-built capital bearing his name. He has not been seen or heard from since the unrest began.

The swift arrival of Russian troops demonstrated the Kremlin's willingness to safeguard its influence in the ex-Soviet Union with force. Since late 2020, Moscow has shored up the leader of Belarus against a popular uprising, intervened to halt a war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and, to the West's alarm, massed troops again near Ukraine, which Russia invaded eight years ago.

Reuters

Do you have a story tip? Email: newsroomau@yahoonews.com.

You can also follow us on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter and download the Yahoo News app from the App Store or Google Play.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting