Kazakhstan’s president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has ordered security forces to “shoot to kill” as they quell anti-government protests that he described as an attack on the state by thousands of Kazakh and foreign “bandits” and “terrorists”.
Officials say dozens of demonstrators and members of the police force and national guard have been killed, and thousands of people injured and arrested in several days of rallies and clashes across the vast energy-rich state in Central Asia.
Mr Tokayev sacked his cabinet earlier this week and restored a cap on the soaring fuel prices that sparked the protests, but when rallies continued against poverty and corruption, he claimed Kazakhstan was being attacked by foreign-trained militants and called on a Russian-led security alliance to send in peacekeepers.
“A counterterrorism operation is continuing in our country. I have given the order to law enforcement agencies and the armed forces to shoot to kill without warning,” Mr Tokayev said on Friday in a television address to the nation of 19 million people.
“The militants have not laid down their arms, they continue to commit crimes or are preparing for them. The fight against them must be pursued to the end. Whoever does not surrender will be destroyed,” he warned.
Mr Tokayev described calls from foreign governments for a peaceful, negotiated solution to the crisis as “stupidity”.
“What kind of talks can we hold with criminal and murderers? We had to deal with armed and well-prepared bandits, local as well as foreign. More precisely, with terrorists. So we have to destroy them, this will be done soon.”
He claimed that 20,000 "bandits" had taken part in violence in Almaty, the biggest city in the world's ninth-largest state, as part of "a precise plan for attacks on military, administrative and social offices in practically all regions", showing "seamless co-ordination, strong combat capabilities and savage brutality."
Kazakh officials have offered no evidence for such claims, but autocratic regimes in Russia, Belarus and other former Soviet states also depict their domestic critics as radical extremists controlled by hostile foreign forces.
Footage from Kazakhstan – which has been relatively scarce due to the state’s internet blackout of recent days – has not only shown street violence but also peaceful protesters calling for reforms and insisting they are ordinary citizens rather than terrorists.
As the first foreign troops started guarding strategic buildings, Mr Tokayev said order had been restored in most regions and described “so-called free media and foreign figures” as “irresponsible demagogues [who] became accomplices in unleashing the tragedy in Kazakhstan.”
“The tragic events in our country highlight the problems of democracy and human rights in a new way. Democracy is not permissiveness, much less incitement . . . to unlawful actions,” he said.
Russia is reportedly sending 3,000 soldiers to the troubled state, and a total of 950 troops are expected to be deployed by Belarus, Armenia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which with Kazakhstan make up the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO).
Chinese president Xi Jinping, whose country borders Kazakhstan, praised Mr Tokayev for taking “strong measures at critical moments [which] quickly calmed down the situation”.