Russian troops have started arriving in Kazakhstan on a mission to stabilise the Central Asian state amid an unprecedented wave of anti-government protests, in which officials say "dozens" of demonstrators and at least 18 members of the security forces have been killed.
Russian soldiers are expected to make up the vast majority of a "peacekeeping" force that will also include servicemen from Belarus, Armenia, Tajikistan and possibly Kyrgyzstan, under the auspices of a six-nation group of ex-Soviet states called the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO).
Kazakh president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev appealed to the CSTO, of which his country is also a member, for help in quelling unrest in which protesters attacked administration buildings in several cities and fought with police and national guard troops who responded with tear gas, stun grenades and, in some cases, live rounds.
Reports from Almaty, the biggest city in the vast energy-rich state, said sporadic gunfire continued on Thursday as Kazakh security forces carried out what officials called a "counter-terrorist" operation against foreign-trained radicals – without offering any evidence to support such a description of the protesters.
Eyewitnesses saw burned-out cars smouldering in the centre of Almaty, where mobs stormed and ransacked state buildings including a presidential residence on Wednesday and Thursday and set the city mayor’s office on fire.
"Extremist forces tried to assault administrative buildings, the Almaty city police department, as well as local police departments. Dozens of assailants were eliminated," said police spokeswoman Saltanat Azirbek.
Officials said 18 members of the police force and national guard had been killed and 748 injured, and about 2,000 people arrested in Almaty and other cities; the health ministry said more than 1,000 protesters had been hurt, but reports suggest the real figure could be much higher.
The protests began after Kazakhstan scrapped price controls on liquefied natural gas on January 1st, causing the price of the widely used vehicle fuel to double.
As the rallies spread across the world’s ninth-largest country, they tapped into deep-seated anger over poverty, corruption and massive inequality in a country where the average monthly wage is about €500 but a tiny elite enjoys a lavish lifestyle of huge wealth, private jets and luxury residences around the world.
“Almaty was attacked, destroyed, vandalised, the residents of Almaty became victims of attacks by terrorists, bandits, therefore it is our duty ... to take all possible actions to protect our state,” Mr Tokayev said in justifying his appeal to the Kremlin-dominated CSTO to deploy forces for the first time in its 30-year history.
Kazakhstan’s foreign ministry said on Thursday that the violence in Almaty points “to the high level of preparedness and co-ordination of the perpetrators. The analysis shows that Kazakhstan is facing an armed aggression from terrorist groups trained outside the country”.
The defence ministry in Moscow said the "first units" of Russian peacekeepers arrived by transport plane in Kazakhstan on Thursday, and Belarus said its soldiers had also taken off for Central Asia. The CSTO officially has a 3,600-strong peacekeeping force, but it is not clear how many troops will be deployed in this case, and the states involved have not revealed the size of their contingents.