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Protests spread in troubled Kazakh oil region

Aktau, Kazakhstan, December 18, 2011

Protests in Kazakhstan's oil-producing Mangistau region, unprecedented in the Central Asian state's recent history, spread on Sunday to the regional capital, where hundreds of angry protesters faced reinforced police troops.

Late on Saturday, one person was killed and 11 people were wounded in a fresh clash with police in the village of Shetpe, bringing the total official death toll in the western region to 14 and the number of wounded to around 100.

President Nursultan Nazarbayev has declared a 20-day state of emergency in the oil city of Zhanaozen, in the same region.

Thirteen people were killed there in violence that broke out on Friday, the prosecutor-general's office said on Sunday.

Public protests are rare in Kazakhstan, Central Asia's largest economy and biggest oil producer, where the 71-year-old Nazarbayev has overseen more than $120 billion in foreign investment during more than two decades in power, but tolerates little dissent and puts stability before democratic freedoms. 

On Sunday morning, around 500 angry protesters gathered near Concord Square of Aktau, a city of 160,000 on the Caspian Sea, some 2,600 km (1,600 miles) southwest of the capital Astana.

Braving biting frost, they faced a large force of black-clad riot police holding shields, a Reuters correspondent reported from the scene. Some policemen were armed with automatic rifles.

"Take the troops out of Mangistau!" read a long banner in Kazakh held by a dozen protesters.

One protester, Sarsekesh Bairbekov, said he had been fired by oil firm Karazhanbasmunai (KBM) in May. "I worked there for 20 years. I was a welder and lost an eye," the 58-year-old told Reuters. His wage was 120,000 tenge ($810) before he was fired.

KBM is jointly owned by London-listed KazMunaiGas Exploration Production and CITIC, China's biggest state investment company.

"We want them to take away the troops," Bairbekov said, referring to the state of emergency imposed in Zhanaozen after the riots.

"They killed local people," he added, still wearing  maroon-and-blue KBM overalls.      Many protesters called into question the official death toll announced after the riots in Zhanaozen.

One oil worker, who declined to be named, said he had just visited a blood donor centre in Aktau. "It is working round-the-clock. If only 10 people were killed, why is it working round-the-clock?" he asked.

Nurlan Mukhanov, deputy chief doctor at the Mangistau regional hospital in Aktau, said 35 wounded had been brought from Zhanaozen and another three from Shetpe.

"The majority have gunshot wounds," Mukhanov said. "We should be ready for any situation.”

"Firmly under control"

The clashes soured national celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of independence from the Soviet Union and unnerved a government focused on stability and economic growth.

Yermukhamet Yertysbayev, a close adviser to Nazarbayev, said "foreign funding" fuelled the riots, but declined to elaborate. He said the situation was "firmly under control".

"There will be no Arab-style revolution. You can see that Kazakhstan is calm," he told Reuters by telephone. "Kazakhstan's entire multi-national population supports the head of state."

"There is a rally in Aktau," he said. "You know, there are also rallies in New York and Cairo ... Citizens have the right to protest, so let's not draw global conclusions." – Reuters




Tags: Kazakhstan | Riot | Police | protests | Oil region |

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