State of emergency ends in Kazakh strike town

Kazakh riot police officer patrols in centre of Zhanaozen, Kazakhstan (17 Dec 2011) Clashes between oil workers and police left 16 dead in the town of Zhanaozen last month

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Kazakhstan has ended a state of emergency in the town of Zhanaozen.

President Nursultan Nazarbayev said on Friday that the state of emergency would not be extended because the "situation had taken a normal course".

Sixteen people were killed last month in the town during clashes between striking oil workers and police.

The violence was the worst since Kazakhstan's independence 20 years ago. Witnesses said police fired indiscriminately at unarmed workers.

Oil workers have been protesting for months in Zhanaozen, a town of about 90,000 people. Police say they were forced to defend themselves during the clashes.

During the state of emergency all protests and strikes were banned, a curfew imposed and checks conducted on all transport leaving and entering the town.

It also allowed officials to restrict or ban the use of television and radio broadcasting equipment.

Criminal inquiry

December's clashes came after months of strikes in Kazakhstan's energy-rich Caspian Sea region. They coincided with the 20th anniversary of the country's independence and were the most violent in its post-Soviet history.

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A criminal inquiry was announced following the appearance of video footage on the internet appearing to show security forces beating and shooting people.

The move marked the first time since the incident that Kazakh prosecutors had accused the police of firing on the protesters. Last month Kazakhstan asked the UN to help investigate the violence.

Eighteen people accused of taking part in the disturbances and looting have been arrested.

President Nazarbayev fired his son-in-law, Timur Kulibayev, from his position as head of Kazakhstan's sovereign wealth fund, which holds stakes in the companies whose workers were striking.

Correspondents say Mr Nazarbayev is keen to maintain his country's reputation as a bastion of stability in Central Asia.

The 71-year-old leader has led Kazakhstan since the Soviet era, achieving strong economic growth but tightly suppressing opposition to his rule. The strikes and subsequent violence have been the biggest challenge to his two-decade rule.

Earlier this month elections were held which for the first time saw two new parties - besides the ruling party - enter parliament.

Kazakhstan has huge energy reserves that are attractive to neighbouring energy-hungry China as well as to the West, which is keen to reduce Europe's dependence on Russia's hydrocarbons.

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