With the country on high alert, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev was said to be taking personal control over the official response to the seemingly coordinated weekend assaults on gun stores, police, and a National Guard facility in the region of Aqtobe, RFE/RL reports.
The Kazakh Interior Ministry said on June 6 that 18 people had died in the attacks or the security response to them, including 12 suspected assailants. Dozens more people are reported injured.
Officials have suggested Islamic militants are to blame, but the evidence for such a conclusion is unclear and no motive has been offered for the attacks, which have shocked the 18 million people of this sprawling, hydrocarbon-rich former Soviet republic.
Aqtobe regional Governor Berdibek Saparbaev on June 6 called on residents to stay calm, adding that “a planned counterterrorist operation is under way.” He added: “The situation is fully under control and is stable.”
But the Nur City neighborhood of Aqtobe, an industrial city and regional hub of more than 300,000 people, remains cordoned off by police. Local media reports said that gunshots rang out and police were checking all individuals entering or leaving the area.
Residents told RFE/RL that local broadcasters were urging people to stay home, and mobile-phone users reported receiving text messages from local authorities saying the terrorist threat level was “red,” denoting the highest level of danger.
Local access to the Internet remains blocked.
National tests scheduled at the city’s two universities have been postponed indefinitely, residents said.
On June 5, dozens of armed assailants carried out almost simultaneous attacks against two gun shops and a military base in the Nur City neighborhood, according to the Interior Ministry, killing two people at a gun shop and three police officers responding to the incident.
Local media reported on June 6 that gun shops had been closed and security guards were stationed near stores in Aqtobe and several major cities, including the capital, Astana, Almaty, and Aktau.
Via Twitter, Qasymzhomart Toqaev, the speaker of the Kazakh upper chamber of parliament, the Senate, called the violence a result of terrorism on the eve of Islam’s holiest month.
“The terrorist act in Aqtobe on the eve of the holy Ramadan is an expression of extreme cynicism and cruelty of the bandits. The strictest measures for their punishment are being undertaken,” Toqaev wrote.
Prime Minister Karim Masimov said on June 6 that President Nazarbaev was overseeing the authorities’ response to the attacks.
Aqtobe, which lies roughly 100 kilometers from the Russian border, was the site of Kazakhstan’s first-ever suicide bombing, in 2011.
The attacks in Aqtobe come with officials already nervous after public protests that led Kazakh police and security forces to detain more than 1,000 people across the country. The unsanctioned demonstrations were targeting land reforms whose implementation was eventually put on hold, with public anger at a boil.
The Kazakh National Security Committee (KNB) announced on June 6 that it suspected a detained businessman from the South Kazakhstan region of organizing and funding those protests. The suspect, Toqtar Toleshov, was arrested in January on suspicion of financing criminal groups and possessing illegal drugs.
The National Security Committee has said that Toleshov’s “plan included destabilizing the situation in the country by creating flash points, organizing protests and mass unrest.”
National Security Committee spokesman Ruslan Karasev told reporters in Astana that several people, including a former deputy prosecutor-general and two high-ranking military officers, have been detained in early June on suspicion of aiding Toleshov.
The head of the Kazakh office of the Russia-based Center for the Analysis of Terrorist Threats, Toleshov has advised the Kazakh parliament and is a former chief executive of one of the country’s largest breweries.