Russia sent paratroopers into Kazakhstan on Thursday to help put down a violent nationwide uprising that has led to the deaths of scores of demonstrators and more than a dozen police officers, as well as government buildings being stormed and set ablaze.
The protesters, carrying clubs and shields, set a presidential residence and the mayor’s office on fire in Almaty, the country’s largest city. Burned-out cars lined the streets in the worst unrest since Kazakhstan gained its independence from the Soviet Union three decades ago.
Security forces wrested control of Almaty’s airport from protesters Thursday.
Police said they killed dozens of rioters, and state television said 13 security officers were killed — including two who were found decapitated — and 353 injured, according to reports.
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev blamed the unrest on “terrorist bands,” called on a Russian-led military alliance for help, and vowed that the rioters would be dealt with harshly.
”It is an undermining of the integrity of the state and most importantly it is an attack on our citizens who are asking me … to help them urgently,” Tokayev said.
The alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, said peacekeeping troops were sent into the former Soviet republic.
However, other media reports said it was difficult to get a clear picture of the extent of the violence because internet service in the country has either been down or spotty.
Tokayev has imposed a two-week nationwide state of emergency that bans large gatherings and establishes a curfew, and Almaty police spokesman Saltanat Azirbek urged people to remain at home while counter-terrorism operations were proceeding.
The uprising began on New Year’s Day over an increase in fuel prices, but began to widen Wednesday as crowds took to the streets chanting slogans against former President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Nazarbayev, 81, stepped down in 2019, but he and his family remain in key posts overseeing the security forces and still control much of the country’s political apparatus.
The protesters accuse Nazarbayev and his family of racking up a fortune from Kazakhstan’s mass reserves of oil and minerals while many in the country of 19 million face financial hardship, and discontent over living conditions is widespread.
Kazakhstan, which shares a border with Russia and China, has vast reserves of oil, natural gas, uranium and other precious metals, making it a strategically important nation.
The quick response from the alliance, made up of troops from Belarus, Armenia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia, indicate the depth of Moscow’s concerns that the unrest in Kazakhstan could spread into other former Soviet states.
Russia has previously backed Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko in the face of a popular uprising. Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has massed tens of thousands of troops along the border with Ukraine while demanding that the West provide guarantees that Ukraine will not become a member of NATO.
With Post wires