Kazakhstan blames fighters from Central Asia, Middle East and Afghanistan for unrest

The Kazakh authorities said "bandits" and "international terrorists" hijacked peaceful protests by citizens unhappy with the increase in car fuel prices. PHOTO: AFP

SINGAPORE - Kazakhstan has linked foreign fighters from Central Asia, the Middle East and Afghanistan to the recent unrest in the oil-rich country.

Kazakhstan's ambassador to Singapore, Mr Arken Arystanov, said the professionally trained fighters who were proficient in weapons and warfare wanted to form a "zone of controlled chaos" in the central Asian country.

"They did not leave the dead and wounded but took the bodies with them," he told a media briefing on Tuesday (Jan 18).

"There were seven attacks on the morgue, during which 41 bodies were abducted by unknown persons. This is the practice of international terrorists and the way to cover their tracks," he said in explaining why the government believed terrorist groups were behind the unrest.

Mr Arystanov said a special investigation task force has been set up to look into the unrest, including the causes and crimes against civilians. "The investigation is still ongoing, the findings will be publicly announced soon," he added.

The Kazakh authorities have said "bandits" and "international terrorists" hijacked peaceful protests earlier this month by citizens who were unhappy with a sharp increase in car fuel prices.

Over 200 people died and more than 1,000 were detained in the worst violence since the country's independence three decades ago.

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said on Jan 10 that it was an attempted coup d'etat where the militants were trying to undermine the constitutional order and destroy government institutions in an attempt to seize power.

However, Mr Stanislav Pritchin, a senior research fellow from the Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said many factors drove the protests, including socio-economic imbalance. Additionally, there was no proof of foreigners' involvement in the protests.

"The Kazakhstan government did not show proof of any foreign fighters to substantiate their claims," he told The Straits Times (ST).

Media reports and analysts have speculated that the violence which ensued - including attacks on military and police stations - represented a struggle for power between President Tokayev's administration and the loyalists of former president Nursultan Nazarbayev, who until recently controlled the important levers of power, including the military and the security services.

"It's quite clear that there has been a power struggle but what we do not know is who triggered it - whether it was by Tokayev or his allies who decided to seize the opportunity or whether it was by his enemies," Mr Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), told ST.

As the protests spread, Mr Tokayev imposed a state of emergency in Almaty and in the restive west. He also dismissed some of his senior security officials who were later charged with treason.

Mr Tokayev asked for assistance from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) to help calm the violence. The CSTO has begun a gradual withdrawal from Kazakhstan since last Thursday after helping to stabilise the situation.

Mr Pantucci said it is a risky decision by Mr Tokayev, given that the government has been moving away from its close links to Russia by emphasising that Kazakhstan is a strong independent state.

However, he believed that Russia will not take advantage of the situation, given that Kazakhstan has traditionally leaned towards Moscow rather than other countries such as the United States or China.

"Russia will come out looking well, they say they are helping to stabilise the situation. The quicker they leave, the better they will look," he added.

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