Ten people were killed Friday when striking oil workers clashed with police during celebrations in the Kazakh city of Zhanaozen to mark 20 years of independence from the Soviet Union. Workers have been striking for months to demand higher wages.
AFP - Ten people were killed Friday in clashes between striking oil workers and police at a ceremony marking Kazakhstan's independence day in the western city of Zhanaozen, prosecutors said.
The buildings of the local administration, hotels and energy firm Uzenmunaigas facility were set on fire in a startling development in a country that prides itself on years of energy-fuelled stability.
"According to preliminary information, 10 people were killed as a result of the mass riots. There are also wounded, including police," prosecutor general Askhat Daulbayev said in a statement.
"The city hall, hotels, Uzenmunaigas offices were set on fire. Private and corporate property was also damaged, cars set on fire and ATMs robbed," he added from the capital Astana.
In a rare move, state-controlled television aired footage of the riots including of people darting around in panic, highlighting the gravity of the situation.
Workers in Zhanaozen and other cities in the Mangistau region on the Caspian Sea have been striking for months for higher wages, in a highly unusual dispute for the Central Asian state which prides itself for an ability to attract foreign investors.
"There's a bloodbath here. It was police that was shooting," Omirbek Isabayev, one of the striking oil workers from Uzenmunaigas, said in remarks broadcast on Kyrgyzstan-based opposition Kazakh channel K-Plus.
Isabaeyev said between 15 and 20 people were shot dead.
K-Plus television channel said the government brought in troops to the city which was now in a virtual lockdown.
It broadcast a video of what appeared to be the start of the clashes when the oil workers in their work jackets stormed the stage that had been erected for the celebrations.
They tipped over speakers and appeared to push officials who had been preparing for the start of a concert. Dozens of police then appeared on the scene.
Daulbayev said the clashes were provoked by an attack by "hooligans" who assaulted police, turned over a Christmas tree and set a police bus on fire. He said they used bats and firearms.
A group of officials led by interior minister Kalmukhanbet Kasymov left for Zhanaozen to prevent further riots, he said.
Leader of the opposition party Alga, Vladimir Kozlov, said in comments aired on K-Plus: "What has happened is not in the interests of the oil workers."
The exploration arm of state energy company Kazmunaigaz -- which owns Uzenmunaigas -- confirmed that "mass riots" had taken place in the city but insisted all its operations were unaffected.
It said that Uzenmunaigas offices had been set on fire.
"At the current moment estimating the extent of the damage is not possible. This will be done later," it said, adding everything was being done to ensure the security of its property.
The independent union Odak said in a statement that 3,000 strikers and their supporters had gathered on the central square of the city to show their discontent before the independence day ceremonies began.
Prosecutors denied reports circulating on the Internet that shots had been fired.
"There are so many police that it seems they have come from all of Kazakhstan," one protestor, identified as Ayman Oungarbayeva, told opposition news magazine Respublika.
Veteran President Nursultan Nazarbayev had earlier, amid great pomp, inaugurated an Arch of Triumph in the capital Astana symbolising 20 years of the county's post-Soviet independence.
Kazakhstan was the last of 15 Soviet republics to declare its independence from the fading Soviet Union, on December 16, 1991.
Its vast energy reserves are hugely attractive for neighbouring energy-hungry China as well as for the West, which is keen to reduce Europe's dependence on Russia's hydrocarbons.
Date created : 2011-12-16