Russia sends troops to Kazakhstan to help quell uprising

Credit…Abduaziz Madyarov / Agence France-Presse – Getty Images

All night and all day Thursday, young men wandered the streets of Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, flanked by flames and reinforced by barricades. As stun grenades exploded and tear gas floated in the air, protesters set fire to trucks, police cars and other vehicles, their smoldering carcasses litter the streets.

The first foreign soldiers from countries ruled by Russia landed in the Central Asian nation and found a land that was, for the time being, steeped in lawlessness.

Some protesters came with guns and started looting shops and malls, according to video footage posted at the scene. They set fire to government buildings, including the town hall and the former office of the country’s president. They also captured the airport.

Security forces responded with force, gunshots rocked the town throughout the day and dozens of people were killed. On Thursday evening, the government claimed to have regained control of all official buildings in Almaty.

The scale of the violence, which was evident in videos, social media posts and official government statements, remained in the spotlight on Thursday as unconfirmed reports of continued sporadic clashes circulated on social networks.

With intermittent Internet access and few independent witnesses, information coming out of the country was difficult to verify.

Galym Ageleulov, who has witnessed the events of recent days, said he believed a protest movement calling for peaceful change was co-opted by mobs of criminals. Overnight, the streets were mostly filled with young men, many posing on social media with riot shields and helmets captured by police. They were very organized and run by gang leaders, he said.

“The police have disappeared from the city,” said Mr. Ageleulov, director of the Liberty Human Rights Center in Almaty. “These gang members marched through city stores, looting stores and torching cars as they moved; they stormed the town hall, ”he said in a telephone interview.

“It was a horrible scene,” he said.

By morning, Almaty had been transformed: commercial banks were ordered to close and many Kazakhs rushed to desperate ATMs to withdraw money; shops were closed, forcing many locals to queue for bread, a scene unseen in the country for decades; sometimes the Internet was cut, disrupting basic infrastructure work.

Almaty Town Hall, an imposing white building that once served as the headquarters of the Communist Party, has been blackened by flames that burned through the night. Members of the special forces roamed the surrounding streets firing live ammunition in an attempt to quell the uprising.

The revolt began on Sunday in western Kazakhstan to protest against soaring fuel prices. Even though the government has said it will reverse the price hike, protests have widened, spreading across the country, with broader demands for increased political representation and better social benefits.

Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev issued a statement Wednesday evening calling the protesters a “bunch of terrorists” who had been trained abroad. He said Kazakhstan was under attack and called for the intervention of Russia’s response to NATO, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, to which his country belongs.

The group is effectively led by Russia and also includes the former Soviet countries within the Kremlin’s sphere of influence: Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

The protests crippled a nation of 19 million people. In addition to bank and internet closures, the telephone system has been cut sporadically, schools have extended their winter holidays by a week, and flights to and from airports in the cities of Almaty, Aktau and Aktobe were suspended.

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