Kazakh Zhanaozen oil unrest spreads to regional capital

Protesters rally in Aktau, Kazakhstan, 18 December Several hundred people protested in Aktau

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Kazakstan's deepest unrest since independence from Soviet rule has spread from the oil town where it broke out on Friday to the regional capital.

Protesters rallied in the west Kazakh city of Aktau after two days of violence over an oil-workers' strike in Zhanaozen left 11 dead and many hurt.

Hundreds of people protested outside the mayor's office in Aktau, capital of the oil-producing Mangistau region.

President Nazarbayev has declared a 20-day state of emergency in Zhanaozen.

A long-running industrial dispute by oil workers in the town of Zhanaozen on Friday descended into violence with 10 people killed and 86 injured.

One person died on Saturday and 11 were injured when security forces opened fire in a railway settlement in a nearby village.

Reports of the violence in the region could not be verified independently.

Three Russian journalists deployed to cover events there were briefly arrested on Sunday under the state of emergency. After their release, they left for Aktau.

Petrol bombs

On Sunday morning, oil workers gathered outside the mayor's office in Aktau, a port of nearly 190,000 people on the Caspian Sea.

Riot police confronted them, cordoning off the area to keep the protesters from drawing a larger crowd, correspondents say.

Analysis

The unrest, which began as Kazakhstan was celebrating the 20th anniversary of its independence from the Soviet Union, is unprecedented.

Many here are finding it difficult to believe that such unrest could be taking place in their country. Comments on pro-government web sites are talking about an evil plot from the West and drawing parallels with recent protests in Russia. After all, some say, we are not Kyrgyzstan - a poor central Asian neighbour which has been through two revolutions in the past six years.

Kazakhstan prides itself as the regional leader, the most successful and stable country in Central Asia. But the recent violence underlines deep-rooted problems in Kazakh society: lack of democracy, lack of free media, and lack of governmental accountability. Very few media outlets in Kazakhstan have been following the strike in Zhanaozen, the country's longest running industrial dispute.

Ruslan Shakhimov, a former employee of the local oil company Karazhanbasmunai, told the Associated Press news agency he had come out to rally to show "solidarity with those workers killed in Zhanaozen".

"We have no rights, we're being treated like cattle," he said, explaining the workers' indignation.

On Saturday afternoon, protesters blocked the line in the railway settlement of Shetpe, near Zhanaozen, causing delays to passenger and goods trains.

They "made calls to support the participants in the mass unrest in Zhanaozen", prosecutors said in a statement.

After warnings, most of the crowd dispersed but some 50 protesters continued to block the line and police moved in during the evening.

In response, the protesters set fire to a freight locomotive and threw petrol bombs at the wagons, then ran riot in the village, burning a New Year's tree, and smashing shop and car windows.

When police came under attack with petrol bombs and stones, they were forced to use their weapons, the prosecutors said.

Twelve people were taken to hospital with gunshot wounds and one of them died.

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The Zhanaozen violence on Friday saw a crowd storm a stage erected for an Independence Day party, smashing sound equipment.

They reportedly later set fire to the city hall, the headquarters of a local oil company, a hotel and dozens of other buildings and vehicles.

Eyewitnesses say police fired on unarmed protesters but the authorities say they were forced to defend themselves.

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