ALMATY: Kazakhstan's president on Friday rejected calls for talks with protesters after days of unprecedented unrest, vowing to destroy "armed bandits" and authorising his forces to shoot to kill without warning.
In a hardline address to the nation, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev also gave "special thanks" to Russian President Vladimir Putin after a Moscow-led military alliance sent troops to Kazakhstan to help quell the unrest.
Security forces had blocked off strategic areas of Almaty -- the country's largest city and epicentre of the recent violence -- and were firing into the air if anyone approached, an AFP correspondent said.
Elsewhere the city was like a ghost town, with banks, supermarkets and restaurants closed. The few small shops that remained open were quickly running out of food.
Tokayev said order had mostly been restored across the country, after protests this week over fuel prices escalated into widespread violence.
"Terrorists continue to damage property... and use weapons against civilians. I have given the order to law enforcement to shoot to kill without warning," Tokayev said in his third televised address to the nation this week.
He ridiculed calls from abroad for negotiations as "nonsense".
"We are dealing with armed and trained bandits, both local and foreign. With bandits and terrorists. So they must be destroyed. This will be done shortly."
Long seen as one of the most stable of the ex-Soviet republics of Central Asia, energy-rich Kazakhstan is facing its biggest crisis in decades.
Protesters stormed government buildings in Almaty on Wednesday and fought running battles with police and the military.
DEATH AND DESTRUCTION
The interior ministry said 26 "armed criminals" had been killed in the unrest, after earlier reporting "dozens" dead.
It said 18 security officers had been killed and more than 740 wounded, and more than 3,800 people detained.
The numbers could not be independently verified and there was no official information about dead and wounded among civilian bystanders.
The full picture of the chaos has often been unclear, with widespread disruptions to communications including mobile phone signals, the blocking of online messengers and hours-long internet shutdowns.
Western countries have called for restraint on all sides and for the respect of people's right to protest peacefully.
In a message to Tokayev, China's President Xi Jinping praised him for taking "strong measures" and "being highly responsible for your country and your people".
Tokayev said Almaty had been under assault from "20,000 bandits" with a "clear plan of attack, coordination of actions and high combat readiness."
He blamed "so-called free media" and unnamed foreign figures for instigating the violence, adding: "Democracy is not permissiveness."
Tokayev on Wednesday declared a nationwide state of emergency and appealed for help from the Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), which includes five other ex-Soviet states.
RUSSIAN TROOPS LAND
Russia's defence ministry said on Friday that nine Il-76 military transport planes carrying paratroopers and hardware had landed in Almaty and that Russian forces had helped to secure the airport.
It is not clear how many troops are being sent in the force -- which includes units from Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan -- but media in Moscow have said the Russian contingent is expected to number less than 5,000.
Protests spread across the nation of 19 million this week in outrage over a New Year increase in prices for liquid petroleum gas (LPG), which is used to fuel many cars in the country.
Thousands took to the streets in Almaty and in the western province of Mangystau, saying the price rise was unfair given oil and gas exporter Kazakhstan's vast energy reserves.
The protests are the biggest threat so far to the regime established by Kazakhstan's founding president Nursultan Nazarbayev, who stepped down in 2019 and hand-picked Tokayev as his successor.
Tokayev has announced a series of moves to head off unrest, including the resignation of the cabinet and six-month fuel price limits.
ANGER AT EX-LEADER
Much of the anger appeared directed at Nazarbayev, who is 81 and had ruled Kazakhstan since 1989 before handing power to Tokayev.
Many protesters shouted "Old Man Out!" in reference to Nazarbayev and a statue of the ex-leader was torn down in the southern city of Taldykorgan.
Critics have accused Nazarbayev and his family of staying in control behind the scenes and accumulating vast wealth at the expense of ordinary citizens.
The ex-president has not made an appearance since the start of the crisis and there were unconfirmed reports of him and members of his family fleeing the country.
Tokayev took Nazarbayev's place as head of the powerful security council this week and fired some of his family members from key positions.
In Almaty, resident Yermek Alimbayev said more changes were needed. - AFP