The former head of Kazakhstan's anti-terror agency was arrested on charges of attempted government overthrow in the wake of violent protests in the country.
The arrest of Karim Masimov was announced by the National Security Committee, which Kasimov headed until he was removed this week by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
Authorities say security forces killed 26 demonstrators in this week’s unrest and that 18 law-enforcement officers died. More than 4,400 people have been arrested, the Interior Ministry said on Saturday.
The protests in the Central Asian nation were the most widespread since Kazakhstan’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Kazakhstan's President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said on Friday he was authorising law enforcement agencies to open fire "without warning" to end chaotic riots in the country.
"I have given the order to shoot to kill without warning," Tokayev said in a televised address, adding that "terrorists continue to damage property and use weapons against citizens".
He rejected any negotiations and promised to "eliminate" those he described as "armed bandits", claiming that 20,000 rampaged through the major city of Almaty with a "clear plan".
His address came hours after he said in a statement that "constitutional order has largely been restored in all regions", adding that operations to restore law and order would continue "until the militants are completely destroyed".
Kazakhstan's economic capital Almaty on Thursday afternoon saw gunfire and explosions with police forces seen firing live rounds after surrounding a group of about 200 people, Russia's Sputnik news service reported.
The military was also deployed by Thursday afternoon, including Russian paratroopers sent in by Moscow after president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev asked the regional intergovernmental military organisation CSTO to intervene.
Military personnel regained control of the main airport, seized earlier by protesters. Thursday evening saw renewed battles in Almaty's main square, occupied alternately by troops and hundreds of protesters throughout much of the day.
Dozens of protesters were reported dead earlier in the day after dissatisfaction over gas prices on Sunday snowballed into Kazakhstan's biggest demonstrations since it declared independence from the Soviet Union.
The anger over a near-doubling of gas prices has grown to include other grievances including poor living conditions in some areas, as well as 30 years under the rule of the same party.
Kazakhstan authorities confirmed the provisional death toll.
"Last night, extremist forces tried to storm administrative buildings, the Almaty city police department, as well as local departments and police stations," police spokesperson Saltanat Azirbek told state news channel Khabar-24.
"Dozens of assailants have been eliminated and their identities are being identified," he added.
Azirbek said an "anti-terrorist" operation was underway in one of the districts of Almaty where the riots were most violent.
President Tokayev on Wednesday demanded help from Russia and its allies to quell the unrest of the past several days which he claimed was supported by “foreign terrorists".
"Today I called on the heads of states of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to help Kazakhstan defeat the terrorist threat," Tokayev said on state television, adding that demonstrations are led by "terrorist gangs" who have "received extensive training abroad".
Nikol Pashinyan, Armenia's Prime Minister and CSTO chairman acquiesced to the demand, saying in a statement on Thursday morning that a "CSTO collective peacekeeping force" would be in the country "for a limited period to stabilise and normalise the situation there."
The decision, he said, was made due to "the threat to the national security and sovereignty of Kazakhstan, caused, among other things, by interference from abroad."
CSTO member states include Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
"The main tasks of the Collective Peacekeeping Forces of the CSTO will be the protection of important state and military facilities, assistance to law and order forces of the Republic of Kazakhstan in stabilising the situation and returning to the rule of law," the alliance said in a statement.
Tokayev had on Tuesday dismissed the government and declared a two-week state of emergency and a nighttime curfew.
But protests did not abate with police using stun grenades, tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters in the southeastern city of Almaty, the country's economic and intellectual capital, on Tuesday night and Wednesday.
The city's main administration building and the presidential residence were both engulfed in flames on Wednesday after protesters, many of them carrying clubs and shields according to reports in Kazakh media, made their way in.
Demonstrations have also been reported in about a dozen other cities.
Cap on fuel prices and food export ban
Protesters have been chanting anti-government slogans such as "Government resign!" and "The old man out!" referring to former president Nursultan Nazarbayev, who remains very influential as the mentor of current leader Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and the honorary Elbasy, or the "Leader of the Nation".
Kazakhstan's government initially tried to calm protesters by reducing the price of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to 50 tenge (€0.1) per litre, compared with 120 at the start of the year.
This represented a significant increase in a country where the minimum wage is 42,500 tenge (€98.7) a month, but that strategy didn't stop the protests.
The Mangystau region relies on LNG as its main source of fuel for cars and any increase in its price leads to an increase in food prices, which have already risen since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Following the government's dismissal, deputy prime minister Alikhan Smailov is to assume the role of interim prime minister until a new cabinet is formed.
A six-month price cap on fuel was introduced on Thursday, which aims to "stabilise the socio-economic situation", the prime minister's website announced.
The export of certain types of food products has also been banned in order to stabilise prices.
The airports in Almaty, the major cities of Aktobe and Aktau, and the capital Nur-Sultan were not working on Thursday after flights were cancelled the day before.
Independent media down amid internet outages
Amid the protests, Kazakhstan is experiencing a "nationwide internet outage," according to the internet monitoring observatory, Netblocks.
The country also suffered "mobile internet disruptions" on Tuesday, Netblocks added in a report.
"This incident is likely to severely limit coverage of the escalating anti-government protests," Netblocks said.
Popular messaging services WhatsApp, Telegram, and Signal were unavailable in Kazakhstan on Wednesday, while the websites of two independent media outlets also appeared to be blocked.
Against the backdrop of problems in the functioning of the Internet, the spokeswoman of the Central Bank Oljassa Ramazanova announced the suspension of work of all financial institutions in the country.
What has the international response been?
The US said it is "closely following" the events in Kazakhstan, which the State Department described in a statement on Wednesday evening as "a valued partner."
"We condemn the acts of violence and destruction of property and call for restraint by both the authorities and protesters," it added, calling for "all Kazakhstanis to respect and defend constitutional institutions, human rights, and media freedom, including through the restoration of internet service."
"We urge all parties to find a peaceful resolution of the state of emergency," it said.
Meanwhile, Russia has called for "dialogue" with the foreign minister adding in a statement that they "support a peaceful solution to all problems within the legal and constitutional framework and through dialogue, not through street riots and violation of laws."
Kazakhstan is of crucial importance to Russia as an economic partner and the former president is a close ally of President Vladimir Putin.
London called for a peaceful resolution of the protests with a spokesman for prime minister Boris Johnson telling reporters on Thursday: "We are concerned about the violent clashes and are following developments closely."
France's foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian urged all parties involved in the crisis, including Russia and its CSTO allies, to "show moderation" and "to open a dialogue", describing the events of the previous 24 hours as "extremely worrying".
Josep Borrell, the European's chief diplomat stressed that the "rights and security of civilians must be guaranteed."
"External military assistance brings back memories of situations to be avoided," he said, adding that the bloc "is ready to support in addressing this crisis."
Temur Umarov, a scientific adviser to the Carnegie Moscow Centre, told Euronews the protests are about more than fuel prices. He expects dialogue to take place, as long as the unrest does not get out of hand.
"Reforms will be on their way. In fact, we've been seeing them for the last few years. It's a trend that would have happened without the protests, but now it will accelerate and the authorities will go for them even more," Umarov explained.
"But they are possible only if the protests will not cross some line over which the authorities will think they are in some kind of stalemate. And then we will see violence."
"Kazakhstan is not a democracy, but if we compare Kazakhstan's regime with other Central Asian regimes (in Uzbekistan, for example, or in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and the ever-changing Kyrgyzstan) we can see that Kazakhstan is more or less democratic compared to other countries," he concluded.