Crude awakening: Mass riots in Kazakhstan oil town on Independence Day

Thousands of oilmen have taken to the streets in the town of Zhanaozen, South Kazakhstan. Protesters demanded higher wages and torched the offices of the local administration and the oil company and a hotel.

Kazakhstan was marking the 20th anniversary of its independence on Friday, December 16. Celebrations were planned throughout the country, but the public in Zhanaozen, consisting mostly of young men, began to shout slogans and shortly afterwards trashed the scene, beat up the guards and started large-scale riots. According to official reports, protesters badly beat two policemen at this early stage of the event.

The authorities deployed additional police forces to the town and also cut off the cellular and internet networks in Zhanaozen. Due to this fact, reports about the event were extremely controversial and lacked confirmation.

Russian news agency ITAR-TASS quoted its own source on site as saying that the protesters set fire to the offices of the town administration, the Ozenmuinagaz oil company and the nearby Hotel Aruana. The crowd also prevented firemen from attending the fires. The source said that, as of Friday afternoon, the police could not contain the unrest.

Later in the day Kazakhstan’s prosecutor general said that 10 people have died in the Zhanaozen unrest and many more wounded, including police officers. The official also confirmed that three buildings were burnt down, as well as several cars and a police bus. The crowd looted some ATMs, the prosecutor said.

The official blamed “a group of people” for the riots, saying that peaceful civilians who intended to celebrate Independence Day also suffered in the attack. He said that the rioters used weapons and attempted to seize firearms from police.

The prosecutor general said that criminal cases had been started over the initiation of the riots. He also said that a group of investigators personally headed by the interior minister had set off for Zhanaozen in order to prevent the criminal actions and to determine and punish all those responsible for the unrest.

Russian-language blogs described the situation in Zhanaozen as much more dramatic, saying the police opened fire at protestors, killing 70 and wounding over 500 people. Bloggers also said that the authorities deployed 1,500 marines to the town in bid to suppress the riot.

Zhanaozen is known as a place of one of the most serious ethnic clashes in late Soviet history. In 1989 (the town was called Novyi Uzen back then), the population comprised of equal parts of ethnic Kazakh and people from North Caucasus republics, primarily Chechens. Several ordinary conflicts at some point led to mass fights and then riots, and the authorities had to deploy army units and armored vehicles to the town to restore order. According to various reports, the 1989 events claimed up to 200 lives.