'Suddenly there was gunfire and he was hit with two bullets'

22-year-old Israeli killed by gunfire in violent Kazakhstan protests

Foreign Ministry bringing Levan Kogeashvili’s body to Israel for burial; family says he wasn’t protesting and was just going to work; comes after Kazakh leader orders lethal force

Levan Kogeashvili, killed in Almaty, Kazakhstan on January 7, 2022 (Courtesy)
Levan Kogeashvili, killed in Almaty, Kazakhstan on January 7, 2022 (Courtesy)

A 22-year-old Israeli was killed by gunfire on Friday evening during violent protests in the Kazakhstan city of Almaty.

The Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Saturday that Levan Kogeashvili had lived in the Central Asian nation for a number of years.

The ministry expressed condolences and said it was liaising with Kogeashvili’s parents, who are in Kazakhstan, and said it was working to transfer the young man’s body to Israel for burial.

The statement also reiterated that there was a travel warning for Kazakhstan in place since Thursday. Israelis have been told to avoid non-essential travel to the country and to avoid potential hotspots there.

According to the Walla news site, Kogeashvili’s family said he was travelling in a car on his way to work when he was shot, adding that the young man was not involved with the protests.

“Suddenly there was the sound of gunfire and he was hit with two bullets,” said Rostislav Edelstein, a friend of the family who lives in Ashdod. “They took him to hospital and tried to save him but had no choice but to declare his death. Two other people with him were lightly wounded.”

A police car on fire as riot police prepare to stop protesters in the center of Almaty, Kazakhstan, January 5, 2022. (AP Photo/Vladimir Tretyakov)

The Central Asian nation this week experienced its worst street protests since gaining independence from the Soviet Union three decades ago, and dozens have been killed in the tumult.

The demonstrations began over a near-doubling of prices for a type of vehicle fuel and quickly spread across the country, reflecting wider discontent with authoritarian rule.

Kazakhstan’s president authorized security forces on Friday to shoot to kill those participating in unrest, opening the door for a dramatic escalation in a crackdown on anti-government protests that have turned violent.

In a televised address to the nation, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev used harsh rhetoric, referring to those involved in the turmoil as “terrorists,” “bandits” and “militants” — though it was unclear what led the peaceful protests to first gather steam and then descend into violence. No protest leaders have emerged so far.

“I have given the order to law enforcement and the army to shoot to kill without warning,” Tokayev said. “Those who don’t surrender will be eliminated.”

In this handout photo taken from video released by Kazakhstan’s Presidential Press Service, Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev speaks during his televised statement to the nation in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, Jan. 5, 2022 (Kazakhstan’s Presidential Press Service via AP)

Concerns grew in recent days that an even broader crackdown might be coming, as internet and cellphone service was severely disrupted and sometimes totally blocked, and several airports closed — making it difficult to know what was happening inside the country and for images of the unrest to reach the outside world.

Adding to those fears was Tokayev’s request for help from a Russia-led military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, whose troops began arriving Thursday.

On Friday, Kazakhstan’s Interior Ministry reported that security forces have killed 26 protesters during the unrest, which escalated sharply on Wednesday. Another 26 were wounded and more than 3,800 people have been detained. A total of 18 law enforcement officers were reported killed, and over 700 injured.

The numbers could not be independently verified, and it was not clear if more people may have died in the melee as the protests turned extremely violent, with people storming government buildings and setting them ablaze.

More skirmishes in Almaty were reported on Friday morning. Russia’s state news agency Tass reported that the building occupied by the Kazakh branch of the Mir broadcaster, funded by several former Soviet states, was on fire.

Protesters take part in a rally over a hike in energy prices in Almaty, Kazakhstan on January 5, 2022 (Abduaziz MADYAROV / AFP)

In other parts of the country, the unrest appeared to be dying down. On Friday morning, news reports said the internet was partially restored in the capital, Nur-Sultan, but it remained unclear for how long. Officials also announced resuming previously halted train services.

The Almaty airport — stormed and seized earlier by the protesters — was back under the control of Kazakh law enforcement and CTSO forces, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said. But the facility will remain shut at least until Sunday, the Kazakh TV channel Khabar 24 reported, citing the airport’s spokespeople.

Curfews remained in place in cities, and Tokayev tweeted on Friday night that “the counter-terrorist operation continues in our country,” with police, the National Guard and the armed forces carrying out “large-scale and well-coordinated work” to restore “law and order.”

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