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Kazakhstan protests: thousands imprisoned as president says order has largely been restored

Kazakhstan’s president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, has claimed constitutional order has largely been restored after days of deadly protests that saw 26 people “liquidated” and more than 3,000 detained, according to interior ministry figures.

Tokayev will address the nation Friday, state media reported, after protests were sparked this week by a sudden rise in fuel prices coupled with long-running frustrations over the political and economic situation in the country.

The apparent return to calm comes a day after Russia sent “peacekeeping troops” into the country to protect infrastructure. The Russian Defense Ministry has released images of Russian troops boarding military planes to Kazakhstan. The force would total about 2,500 people, the regional alliance of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) said.

Witnesses in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, described scenes of chaos on Thursday, with government buildings being stormed or burned and widespread looting. Many protesters said the protests had started peacefully earlier this week and turned violent after a crackdown by the government.

Police spokesman Saltanat Azirbek told state news channel Khabar-24 on Thursday that “dozens of attackers have been liquidated”. There were also reports of about 400 people hospitalized.

City officials in Almaty said 748 police and National Guard officers were injured and 18 killed, one of whom was found beheaded. It was not immediately possible to verify the figures, but video footage showed violent clashes between protesters and authorities in a number of cities.

A local journalist, Ardak Bukeeva, who spoke to protesters in downtown Almaty on Thursday, said protesters storming the presidential residence in the city told her dozens of people had been killed in the attack.

Many protesters said they came out earlier this week as a result of long-running frustrations over the political and economic situation in the country, Bukeeva said. However, on Wednesday the situation turned violent, with some claiming provocateurs had arrived to deliberately cause trouble, and others noting that police were almost completely absent from the city center.

Irina Mednikova, a civil society activist in Almaty, said she saw large pools of blood in the grass around the presidential residence on Thursday morning and that there were no security forces or police.

“The house has completely burned down. The gates had been broken open with cars or tractors, all the glass was broken and inside there was smoke and a terrible smell of burning,” she said.

Russian television shows soldiers disembarking from a military plane at an airport in Kazakhstan on Thursday. Photo: AP

Internet and mobile phone reception in most of the country was down for much of the country on Thursday, and for most Kazakhs, only state television was available to receive news about the protests. Rumors spread through word of mouth and it was difficult to verify claims.

Later on Thursday, news agencies reported new gunfire in Almaty and moving military vehicles in the city. State television claimed an “anti-terrorist operation” was underway.

“The terrorists are using civilians, including women, as human shields. The police are doing their best to ensure the safety of the residents of the city,” Khabar 24 told his viewers. On Thursday evening, authorities claimed they had all government buildings in Almaty under control.

Valeria Ibraeva, an art historian who watched the protests from her window overlooking one of Almaty’s main arteries, said on Tuesday the crowd was “friendly and smiling, without aggression and with great hope”. However, on Wednesday there were attempts to knock over a bus in the street and shops were extensively looted, she said.

Radio Azattyq, Radio Liberty’s Kazakh service, reported unrest in cities across the country. In Aktobe, protesters had gathered to defend the airport and train station, insisted they did not want violence and demanded negotiations with authorities. In other cities, there were burned-out cars, a shutdown of public infrastructure and panic as people couldn’t withdraw money from banks and found their cards didn’t work after the banking system closed.

In the city of Taldykorgan, protesters on Wednesday tore down a monument to Nursultan Nazarbayev, who ruled the country from its independence in 1991 to 2019. The former president, who bears the official title of leader of the nation, has been gone since the protests began. seen in public and on Thursday there were rumors that he and his family may have fled the country.

Western countries, already on high alert for a possible Russian attack on Ukraine, watched with unease, aware that they could do little to influence events in Kazakhstan.

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said: “All deployed forces must have a clear mission and act proportionately in any use of force to defend legitimate security interests in Kazakhstan.”

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken spoke with his Kazakh counterpart, Mukhtar Tileuberdi, and “pled for a peaceful, rights-respecting solution to the crisis,” according to a state department reading the appeal.

Additional reporting by Yevgeniya Plakhina