Protesters Demand Troops Leave Embattled Kazakhstan Town

Posted December 19th, 2011 at 6:45 pm (UTC-5)
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Hundreds have protested for a third day in oil-rich western Kazakhstan against the police shooting deaths of at least 15 people demonstrating against job cuts.

The protesters were demanding Monday that troops pull out of the town of Zhanaozen, where President Nursultan Nazarbayev declared a state of emergency because of the violence.

Kazakhstan's ambassador to the United States, Erlan Idrissov, says the government had no choice but to impose a state of emergency to protect what he calls innocent lives. Ambassador Idrissov says the government regrets the loss of life in Zhanaozen. He says a commission will seek to resolve disputes between oil workers and the state-owned energy company.

Fired oil workers and others demanding higher pay destroyed a Christmas tree and tents in the Zhanaozen town square Friday, and burned several buildings, setting off clashes with police. Kazakhstan officials put the death toll at 15, but witnesses say the number is much higher.

Mr. Nazarbayev calls the rioters foreign-inspired hooligans. Some of the demonstrators in Zhanaozen say the police surrounded them in the square and opened fire.

A State Department spokeswoman Monday said the United States is deeply concerned about the violence in Kazakhstan and urges all sides to show restraint. She said U.S. officials also urge the Kazakhstani government to re-open any lines of communication that may have been shut down because of the state of emergency.

Such violence is rare in Kazakhstan, where public dissent is not tolerated and critics decry President Nazarbayev's human rights record. But Kazakhstan's oil wealth has led to more stability and a higher standard of living than in other Central Asian former Soviet states.