A Russian-led force has arrived in Kazakhstan at the request of the country’s authoritarian president, amid a violent crackdown on anti-government protests.
Machine gun fire reverberated through the largest city Almaty after days of unrest sparked by a fuel price hike.
Officials have reported deaths of police and protesters.
The president has blamed foreign-trained “terrorists”, without giving evidence.
In an address on state TV on Wednesday, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev appealed to the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) for support in quelling the protests. The bloc includes Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Tajikistan and Armenia.
The overseas force being sent to Kazakhstan reportedly numbers about 2,500 soldiers. The CSTO says the troops are a peacekeeping force and will protect state and military installations. They will stay in the country for several days or weeks, the Russian RIA news agency reports.
The US State Department has said it is closely monitoring the deployment of Russian troops. “The United States and, frankly, the world will be watching for any violation of human rights,” a spokesman said.
“We will also be watching for any actions that may lay the predicate for the seizure of Kazakh institutions.”
The UN, US, UK, and France have called on all sides to refrain from violence.
Some 18 members of the security forces have died in Almaty, officials said, and police said they had killed dozens of people described as “rioters” overnight.
Saule, a 58-year-old construction worker who took part in the protests, told AFP news agency that she saw security forces open fire on demonstrators.
“We saw the deaths,” she said. “Straight away about 10 were killed.”
The unrest began on Sunday when the cost of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) – which many people in Kazakhstan use to fuel their cars – doubled, drawing protesters onto the streets.
The government said on Thursday that fuel price caps will be restored for six months. But the announcement has failed to end the protests, which have broadened to include other political grievances.
Kazakhstan is often described as authoritarian, and most elections are won by the ruling party with nearly 100% of the vote. There is no effective political opposition.
Burnt down buildings and long queues
By Abdujalil Abdurasulov, BBC News, Almaty
The bustling square of Almaty has turned into a conflict zone, complete with burnt down buildings and vehicles. Many people are scared to go outside, especially at night because clashes are continuing. The sounds of shooting and explosions remind people how dangerous it can be to leave their homes.
There are big queues at petrol stations. Residents struggle to buy food because shopping malls, supermarkets, cafes and restaurants are all closed, only small shops are still open. The internet blockade continues, so people cannot withdraw money, or top up their phones.
A presidential residence in Almaty and its mayor’s office were both ablaze on Thursday. The military has now regained control of the main airport, which had been seized by protesters.
Kazakhstan’s health ministry said about 1,000 people have been injured in the unrest.
The bloodshed comes after President Tokayev sacked his cabinet on Wednesday in a bid to head off the demonstrations. He also fired his powerful predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had held a national security role since stepping down as president.
Kazakhstan: The basics
Where is it? Kazakhstan shares borders with Russia to the north and China to the east. It is a huge country the size of Western Europe, dwarfing in land mass the other former Soviet republics of Central Asia.
Why does it matter? It has vast mineral resources, with 3% of global oil reserves and important coal and gas sectors. A mainly Muslim republic with a large Russian minority, it has largely escaped the civil strife seen in other parts of Central Asia.
Why is it making the news? Fuel riots have rocked the government, resulting in resignations at the top and a bloody crackdown on protesters.
Source: BBC News