Protesters forced their way to a government building in Kazakhstan’s largest city amid rare protests that began over a sharp rise in fuel prices.
Armed with sticks and metal rods, protesters stormed the mayor’s office of Almaty on Wednesday, according to local news website Zakon.kz.
A live Instagram stream by a Kazakh blogger showed how a fire at the mayor’s office flame and shots could be heard nearby.
A crowd was seen gathering outside the building against a backdrop of stun grenades, which were allegedly set in motion by security forces.
More than 1,000 people took part in the protest, the AFP news agency reported, citing a correspondent at the scene.
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who blamed foreign “provocateurs” for the protests, declared a state of emergency in the city and surrounding province, with a curfew and movement restrictions.
Earlier Wednesday, in an effort to quell the crisis, Tokayev fired Kazakhstan’s government.
More than 200 people were arrested.
Disagreement began to escalate over the weekend after price caps on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) were lifted.
Many Kazakhs converted their cars to use on VPG due to their low cost, but prices more than doubled after the caps were lifted.
Tokayev ordered acting cabinet members and provincial governors to reinstate price controls on VPG and extend them to petrol, diesel and other “socially important” consumer goods.
He also demanded from the acting government to develop a personal bankruptcy law and consider freezing utility prices and subsidizing rent payments for poor families.
Demonstrations spread across the country
Kazakhstan is a tightly controlled former Soviet republic that cultivates an image of political stability, helping to attract hundreds of billions of dollars in foreign investment in its oil and metals industry over 30 years of independence.
The protests start in the town of Zhanaozen, in the oil-rich western Mangystau region, before spreading to several towns and cities, including the Aktau regional center on the country’s Caspian Sea coast, and a labor camp used by subcontractors of Kazakhstan’s largest oil producer, Tengizchevroil
Atameken, Kazakhstan’s business lobby group, has reported attacks on banks, shops and restaurants.
In addition to Almaty, government buildings were attacked overnight in the southern cities of Shymkent and Taraz, with 95 police officers wounded in clashes.
Public protests are considered illegal in Kazakhstan, whose parliament is without opposition, unless its organizers give prior notice.
Bruce Pannier, a Central Asia correspondent for Radio Free Europe and an expert on the region, told Al Jazeera that the recent protests “surprised everyone”.
“As these protests tend to do, they started for economic reasons … but quickly took a political corner, where people started asking for free elections for local officials and the expulsion of top officials,” he said. he said.
“They are working to get it under control as much as possible. [but] it will damage the reputation of the Kazakh government. ”
In addition to replacing Kazakhstan’s prime minister, Tokayev has appointed a new first deputy head of the National Security Committee to take over from Samat Abish, a cousin of powerful former president Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Nazarbayev, 81, a Soviet-era Communist Party boss, ruled Kazakhstan for nearly 30 years before abruptly resigning in 2019 and supporting Tokayev as his successor.
Nazarbayev retains extensive powers as chairman of the Security Council; he did not convene the council or comment on this week’s violence.