ZHANAOZEN, Kazakhstan – Kazakhstan's Interior Minister said Sunday that live firearms will continue to be deployed against violent protesters if necessary, in defiance of the international outcry that followed the more than a dozen deaths caused by clashes over recent days.
At least 15 people have been killed since the monthslong sit-in demonstration by oil workers in southwestern town of Zhanaozen descended into a violent confrontation Friday morning between police and protesters.
The unrest is causing palpable tension among authorities in the energy-rich Central Asian nation, whose economy relies heavily on the oil extracted from the region affected by the disturbances.
Kazakhstan's president on Saturday imposed a three-week state of emergency in Zhanaozen, and Interior Minister Kalmukhambet Kasymov has taken residence in the remote town to oversee security operations.
Although the demonstrating oil workers in Zhanaozen were fired by their employers over the summer, the protests have continued unabated.
Kasymov said that while the demonstrators have conducted themselves with restraint over the past seven months, the situation quickly deteriorated Friday morning, when participants in a children's concert in the main square came under attack.
After overpowering the outnumbered police officers, a mob went on a rampage throughout the city, setting alight the mayor's office, a hotel, the UzenMunaiGas oil company headquarters and the local branch of the governing Nur Otan party, Kasymov said.
Kasymov said police fired their weapons only because they were left with no other option.
"Nobody specifically gave the order to open fire in that situation. Every police officer took the decision themselves. When they take a weapon off you, there is no need for an order to be issued," Kasymov said.
He also insisted that the police did not shoot to kill, but fired in the air or in the ground, and that some people may have been fatally struck by ricocheting bullets. Kasymov conceded, however, that the police force would have to put in place better contingency planning for the deployment of nonlethal crowd control techniques.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe chairperson-in-office, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Azubalis, expressed his concern in a statement at the measures adopted in suppressing the disorder.
"Any action to control crowds by law enforcement should be proportionate and in line with international human rights standards," he said.
Rights activists will likely also be concerned by what appeared to heavy-handed treatment of detainees at Zhanaozen's main police station Sunday evening. Journalists at the station reported hearing screams coming from what appeared to be interrogation rooms, while a number of men with bloodied faces were lined up in a row in the corridors with their faces against the wall.
Reporters visiting the town under close supervision were not freely permitted to speak with detainees or residents.
In a related development, prosecutors said about 300 demonstrators supporting the Zhanaozen victims blocked railroad traffic in the nearby village of Shetpe for several hours Saturday evening and after police tried to force them away, a group of about 50 set a locomotive on fire, then moved into the town where they broke windows and set the municipal holiday tree ablaze. One person was shot dead as police attempted to quell the unrest.
In the regional capital of Aktau, several hundred former oil workers also rallied Sunday morning in front of the mayor's office to show their support for the workers in Zhanaozen and Shetpe. Police cordoned off the area to keep the protesters from drawing a larger crowd.
Ruslan Shakhimov, a former employee of the local oil company Karazhanbasmunai, told the Associated Press that he came out to rally to show "solidarity with those workers killed in Zhanaozen."
"We have no rights. We're being treated like cattle," Shakhimov said, explaining the workers' indignation.
Kazakhstan, whose economy has bounced back from the global economic crisis on the back of robust energy earnings, appears to be deeply concerned over any damage events over the past few days may have inflicted on the country's reputation.
Public relations company BGR Gabara distributed a statement on behalf of the Kazakh embassy in the United States mounting a detailed defense of the authorities actions.
In an another sign that Kazakhstan's authoritarian government were attempting to contain information on developments in Zhanaozen, Internet users reported being unable to open several independent news websites or Twitter for around two days after the disturbances began.
Nazarbayev has kept a tight lid on any signs of public discontent during his 20 years of rule. The apparent scale of unrest in Zhanaozen will come as a shock to Nazarbayev's government, which has also been combating an unprecedented surge in radical Islamist-inspired violence in recent months.