MOSCOW — The presidential residence in Kazakhstan’s largest city was engulfed in flames on Wednesday and armed protesters stormed another government building, according to news reports, as demonstrations sparked by a rise in fuel prices escalated sharply.
Demonstrators stormed the mayor’s office in Almaty and attempted to break into the presidential residence, according to local news reports, as intensifying protests led the Central Asian country’s government to resign.
Kazakhstan also cut internet and mobile phone access as its president promised a harsh response to what he said were “massive attacks” on security forces.
Many of the demonstrators who converged on the mayoral office in Almaty carried clubs and shields, and flames were seen coming from the building, according to the reports, but it was unclear how extensive the fire was. Meanwhile, thousands massed outside the presidential residence in the city. A fire at the city prosecutor’s office also was reported.
Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev vowed a “tough” response to the mass protests.
Tokayev addressed the country on Wednesday for a second time since the protests began, assuring Kazakhs that he has no plans to step down from his post after accepting the mass resignation of his cabinet earlier in the day.
“As president, I am obliged to protect the safety and peace of our citizens, to worry about the integrity of Kazakhstan,” he said in Russian on Kazakh television.
He said that the country had seen “massive attacks on law enforcement officers” and claimed that at least several had been “killed” or “wounded.”
“Crowds of bandit elements are beating up servicemen, mocking them, leading them naked through the streets, abusing women, robbing shops,” he claimed.
“As head of state and from today onwards as chairman of the security council, I intend to act as tough as possible,” Tokayev said. “Together we will overcome this black period in the history of Kazakhstan.”
Tokayev was handpicked by Kazakhstan’s founding president Nursultan Nazarbayev, who stepped down in 2019.
But Nazerbayev retained control over the country, until now as chairman of the security council, and as “Leader of the Nation” — a constitutional role that affords him unique policy-making privileges as well as immunity from prosecution.
On Wednesday afternoon, many Kazakh news sites became inaccessible and the global internet monitor Netblocks said the country was experiencing a widespread internet blackout.
Despite the government’s resignation, all ministers will remain in their posts until a new Cabinet is formed — and it remained unclear if the move would result in policy changes or have any effect of the growing protests.
The demonstrations against a sharp increase in prices for liquefied gas — used by many to fuel their cars — began this week in the country’s west and have spread across the country.
Tokayev declared a state of emergency in Almaty, imposing an overnight curfew and limiting access to the city. He later imposed a state of emergency for two weeks in the capital, Nur-Sultan.
At the start of the year, prices for liquefied gas roughly doubled as the government moved away from price controls.
Although Kazakhstan has extensive gas and oil reserves and mineral wealth, discontent over poor living conditions is strong in some parts of the country. Many Kazakhs also chafe at the dominance of the ruling party that holds more than 80% of the seats in parliament.
Dozens of police vehicles were set on fire or vandalized in the city, reports said.