Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev Saturday declared a 20-day state of emergency in a western oil city where at least 11 people have been killed in the deadliest outbreak of violence in the Central Asian state's recent history.
Wounded victims filled hospitals in Zhanaozen and many oil workers stayed at home, fearing for their safety a day after violent clashes between riot police and crowds in a city where thousands of sacked oil workers have been protesting for months.
The head of a local trade union said many wounded civilians and policemen had been brought by car from overflowing hospitals in Zhanaozen, a city of 90,000 around 150 km east of the Caspian Sea, to the regional center of Aktau.
They have all kinds of wounds, from gunshot wounds to stab wounds and blunt traumas, Kenzhegali Suyeov, chairman of the independent Aktau trade union, told Reuters. He said sporadic shooting had been heard in Zhanaozen overnight.
Public protests are rare in Kazakhstan, Central Asia's largest economy and oil producer, where 71-year-old Nazarbayev has overseen more than $120 billion (77 billion pounds) in foreign investment during more than two decades in power.
The clashes marred celebrations across the rest of Kazakhstan to mark the 20th anniversary of independence from the Soviet Union and were a shock to a government that has put stability and economic growth over democratic freedoms.
We will not permit any attempts to disturb the peace and calm in our home, to erase the achievements of our independence, Nazarbayev said in a statement.
The state will use the full strength of the law to suppress any attempt to disturb the peace and security of our citizens.
STATE OF EMERGENCY
A presidential decree declared a state of emergency and curfew in Zhanaozen until January 5. Public protests and strikes are banned while movement around Zhanaozen and access to and from the city will be restricted.
The clashes began when sacked oil workers and sympathetic citizens stormed a stage erected for an Independence Day party Friday, toppling sound equipment and later setting fire to the city hall and the headquarters of the local oil company.
Nurdaulet Suindikov, spokesman for the prosecutor-general's office, told a news conference 11 people had been killed in the clashes. A further 86 people were wounded, including six policemen, he said. Around 70 people have been arrested.
Reports on social networking websites said the death toll was much higher than 10 and police had opened fire. These reports could not be verified independently. Power, mobile phone connections and Internet access was shut down in the city.
European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton said in a statement she hoped for an immediate investigation and a peaceful solution to the problems faced by striking oil workers.
Nazarbayev said policemen had acted within legal bounds.
Thousands of employees of state-controlled oil company KazMunaiGas Exploration Production began a strike in May to demand better pay and conditions. It sacked 989 workers and says output will fall 8.5 percent short of target this year.
London-listed KazMunaiGas EP said the Interior Ministry was providing armed security at oil production facilities and some workers had failed to show up for the night and morning shifts due to security concerns. A round-the-clock shift by workers on site was maintaining daily output levels, the company said.
KazMunaiGas EP has said 2,500 people were on strike at the height of the dispute. Representatives of the striking workers have put the maximum number at almost 16,000.
For seven months, those striking workers were standing in the scorching sun, in the rain and wind and snow, and the authorities would not start a dialogue with them, said Bolat Abilov, a leader of the opposition Social-Democratic Party.
Nazarbayev hinted he did not believe aggrieved workers were behind the violence.
One shouldn't confuse an oilmens' working dispute with the criminal acts of bandits who aimed to take advantage of the situation, he said. We will find out where the funding comes from and who is behind this.
Yermukhamet Yertysbayev, a close adviser to Nazarbayev, likened Zhanaozen to social protests in Europe. You know, practically the same events took place in August this year in London, RIA news agency quoted him as telling reporters.
And events of a similar nature have happened in Greece. In the end, the global financial crisis has extremely aggravated social conflicts.
Around 100 opposition activists gathered in the commercial capital, Almaty, for a memorial service to commemorate Kazakhs killed in clashes with Soviet forces in December 1986.
Yesterday, exactly 25 years later, the same tragedy was repeated, said one of the activists, Gulzhan Yergaliyeva.
Around 20 protesters broke off from the service and attempted to march to the city headquarters of the ruling Nur Otan political party. Riot police detained around half of them.
KazMunaiGas EP's London-traded stock closed down 4.0 percent Friday, versus a decline of only 0.4 percent in the wider oil and gas sector.
(Additional reporting by Mariya Gordeyeva in Almaty and Jan Strupczewski in Brussels; Editing by Sophie Hares)