Warning shots rang out in ex-Soviet Kazakhstan's biggest city on Friday as people cautiously took to the streets in small groups after unprecedented unrest.

Shattered glass and burnt-out cars littered Almaty's streets which were enveloped in an eerie mist.

With parts of the city unrecognisable after looters ran rampant, people watched as rescue service vehicles positioned concrete blocks as checkpoints around the area where clashes between protesters and police had been fiercest.

Police patrol cars appeared on the streets for the first time since a thousands-strong protest this week saw demonstrators seize the mayor's office building and ransack the presidential residence, which is on a street named after the country's first president Nursultan Nazarbayev.

In a financial district where banks were shuttered, police stopped and searched passing cars as bewildered drivers held their hands behind their heads.

The square adjacent to the mayor's office -- which was overrun by protesters -- was sealed off by the military on Friday after a peacekeeping mission by a Moscow-led military alliance was deployed to the city.

Shattered glass and burnt-out cars littered Almaty's streets which were enveloped in an eerie mist
Shattered glass and burnt-out cars littered Almaty's streets which were enveloped in an eerie mist AFP / Abduaziz MADYAROV

An AFP correspondent frequently heard warning shots fired into the air.

One long burst of gunfire scattered onlookers who had gathered close to a checkpoint, pointing and taking photos of a destroyed car with traces of state markings.

A short walk from the military cordon, volunteers were manning a makeshift checkpoint made out of benches and metal railings. They diverted approaching traffic, wearing medical masks as arm bands.

"Who are you? Not looters I hope?" asked one driver. "Where are the police?"

Rescue service vehicles positioned concrete blocks as checkpoints in Almaty
Rescue service vehicles positioned concrete blocks as checkpoints in Almaty AFP / Abduaziz MADYAROV

A man who wandered into no man's land beyond the makeshift checkpoint found himself turned away by the military.

"Go back!" a voice yelled, as a crackle of gunfire erupted.

"I am just an ordinary resident. I wanted to see what was happening in my city!" said the bemused 47-year-old named Gavit, who didn't say his last name.

A volunteer manning the makeshift checkpoint told AFP that he was responding to a call on Instagram to help guard the city and tidy up the mess caused by looters who targeted hunting shops, supermarkets and pawn shops.

"I want to help the city because in the past three-four days something terrible happened here," said Aziz Baltabayev, a 26-year-old bank manager.

"What happened should be a lesson for the people and the government because it is such a loss," he added.

Minutes later the state rescue service arrived to put down concrete blocks in place of the railings.

Amid broken windows on shop fronts and rubbish littering the streets, small grocery stores were operating but in many cases their shelves were empty, lacking essentials such as bread.

Some petrol stations began opening on Friday, sparking long queues stretching along the roads. Drivers impatiently honked their horns as the waiting cars blocked motorway exits.

Only some restaurants were working and as snow began falling and darkness swept over the city, few non-residential buildings were lit.

In a rare roadside kebab shop, people exchanged rumours of fresh battles between military and protesters just outside the boundaries of the shut-off city, as well as hard-luck stories related to the chaos.

"At the beginning of the week I handed my phone over to a pawnshop," said one man, called Almas. "But the pawnshop got ransacked. I guess I'll never see my phone again now."