MOSCOW (AP) — Kazakhstan's health ministry said Sunday that 164 people have been killed in protests that have rocked the country over the past week.
The figures reported on the state news channel Khabar-24 are a significant increase from previous tallies. It is not clear if the report referred only to civilians or if law enforcement deaths are included. Kazakh authorities said earlier Sunday that 16 members of the police or national guard had been killed. Authorities previously gave the civilian death toll as 26.
Most of the deaths — 103 — were in Almaty, the country's largest city, where demonstrators seized government buildings and set some afire, according to the ministry. Kazakhstan's ombudswoman for children's rights said three of those killed were minors, including a 4-year-old girl.
The ministry earlier reported more than 2,200 people sought treatment for injuries from the protests, and the Interior Ministry said about 1,300 security officers were injured.
The office of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said that about 5,800 people were detained by police during the protests that developed into violence last week and prompted a Russia-led military alliance to send troops to the country.
His office said order has stabilized in the country and that authorities regained control of administrative buildings that were occupied by protesters. Some of the buildings were set on fire.
The Russian TV station Mir-24 said sporadic gunfire was heard Sunday in Almaty, but it was unclear whether they were warning shots by law enforcement. Tokayev said Friday he had authorized police and the military to shoot to kill to restore order.
Almaty’s airport, which had been taken by protesters last week, remained closed but was expected to resume operations Monday.
Protests over a sharp rise in fuel prices began in the country’s west on Jan. 2 and spread throughout the country, apparently reflecting wider discontent.
The same party has ruled Kazakhstan since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Any figures aspiring to oppose the government have either been repressed, sidelined, or co-opted and financial hardship is widespread despite Kazakhstan's enormous reserves of oil, natural gas, uranium and minerals.
Tokayev contends the demonstrations were ignited by “terrorists” with foreign backing, although the protests have shown no obvious leaders or organization. The statement from his office on Sunday said the detentions included “a sizable number of foreign nationals,” but gave no details.
It was unclear how many of those detained remained in custody on Sunday.
The foreign ministry in neighboring Kyrgyzstan on Sunday called for the release of well-known Kyrgyz musician Vikram Ruzakhunov, who was shown in a video on Kazakh television saying that he had flown to the country to take part in protests and was promised $200. In the video, apparently taken in police custody, Ruzakhunov's face was bruised and he had a large cut on his forehead.
The former head of Kazakhstan’s counterintelligence and anti-terrorism agency has been arrested on charges of attempted government overthrow. The arrest of Karim Masimov, which was announced Saturday, came just days after he was removed as head of the National Security Committee by Tokayev.
No details were given about what Masimov was alleged to have done that would constitute an attempted overthrow of the government. The National Security Committee, a successor to the Soviet-era KGB, is responsible for counterintelligence, the border guards service and anti-terrorist activities.
As the unrest mounted, Kazakhstan's ministerial cabinet resigned but remained in their posts temporarily. Tokayev spokesman Brisk Uali said the president would propose a new cabinet on Tuesday.
At Tokayev’s request, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russia-led military alliance of six former Soviet states, authorized sending about 2,500 mostly Russian troops to Kazakhstan as peacekeepers.
Some of the force is guarding government facilities in the capital, Nur-Sultan, which “made it possible to release part of the forces of Kazakhstani law enforcement agencies and redeploy them to Almaty to participate in the counterterrorist operation,” according to a statement from Tokayev’s office.
In a sign that the demonstrations were more deeply rooted than just over the fuel price rise, many demonstrators shouted “Old man out,” a reference to Nursultan Nazarbayev, who was president from Kazakhstan’s independence until he resigned in 2019 and anointed Tokayev as his successor.
Nazarbayev retained substantial power as head of the National Security Council. But Tokayev replaced him as council head amid the unrest. possibly aiming at a concession to mollify protesters. However, Nazarbayev adviser Aido Ukibay said Sunday that it was done at Nazarbayev's initiative, according to the Kazakh news agency KazTag.