(CN) — Dozens of people were killed and hundreds more wounded, according to news reports, as Russian paratroops were sent to Kazakhstan on Thursday to crack down on riots and demonstrations sparked by anger over a rise in fuel prices.
The bloodshed took place overnight as rioters stormed administrative buildings in Almaty, the Central Asian nation's largest city. Kazakh police said dozens of people were killed and that more than 1,000 others were wounded. Reports indicate that police and protesters clashed throughout Thursday.
Videos on social media and in news reports showed burnt vehicles and buildings, pillaged stores, Russian troops on deserted streets, automatic gunfire in the streets and residents screaming.
At least 18 police officers were killed and 750 wounded in the violence, Kazakh officials reported.
Kazakhstan's government, ruled by what is regarded as a dictatorship, asked Moscow for help to squash the protests and riots. Internet was shut down across the country, telephone services were interrupted and reports about the situation on the ground were spotty.
The country of 19 million people has been in the grip of protests for days and President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev issued a call for help to the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military alliance dominated by Russia. It includes five other ex-Soviet states.
Tokayev declared a state of emergency and said the government was fighting “terrorist groups” that had “received extensive training abroad.” He said people were seizing buildings, infrastructure and small arms. News reports said the presidential residence and mayor's office in Almaty were attacked.
“Last night, extremist forces tried to assault administrative buildings, the Almaty city police department, as well as local police commissariats. Dozens of assailants were eliminated,” police spokesman Saltanat Azirbek was quoted as saying by the Interfax-Kazakhstan, TASS and Ria Novosti news agencies.
Russia sent paratroopers and military units from the other CSTO states were deployed to the country. The CSTO's chairman, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, said Kazakhstan was facing “outside interference.”
Kazakhstan is the largest of the former Soviet republics, excluding Russia, and possesses vast hydrocarbon and mineral reserves that form the backbone of its economy.
Generally, Kazakhstan is viewed as stable and prosperous, but anger over a hike in fuel prices erupted in recent days. Demonstrators are also calling for an end to the regime of Nursultan Nazarbayev, an 81-year-old former Soviet-era politician who became the country's first president following the collapse of the Soviet Union and remained the head of state until 2019, when his close ally Tokayev took over.
Many protesters shouted “Old Man Out!” in reference to Nazarbayev and images posted on social media showed a statue of the ex-president being torn down.
Nazarbayev has built a cult of personality around himself and established a corrupt dictatorship, according to many analysts. The country is landlocked and dependent on Russia for exports.
In 2010, it joined Russia and Belarus to form a Customs Union to boost foreign investment and improve trade and that pact has evolved into a Single Economic Space and the Eurasian Economic Union.
Economically, the country has suffered in recent years due to Russia's economic downturn, a decline in global commodity prices following the Great Recession and pressures from the coronavirus pandemic. In 2014, Kazakhstan was forced to devalue its currency, the tenge, and it has struggled to regain in value since then.
Protests spread across the nation after a rise in prices for liquid petroleum gas, which many Kazakhs use to fuel cars. Large demonstrations took place on Jan. 2 in Almaty and the western province of Mangystau.
Tokayev failed to dispel the anger on Wednesday following an announcement that the government headed by Prime Minister Askar Mamin was resigning.
He declared a state of emergency and imposed a nighttime curfew and restrictions on movement and mass gatherings. He also reimposed a cap on fuel prices to calm the revolt.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.