The presidential palace in Kazakhstan’s largest city is on fire, and the city’s administration building is on fire, according to reports from top to bottom, after nationwide protests erupted.
The Russian news agency Tass said the president’s residence in Almaty, where thousands of protesters gathered outside, was engulfed in flames and that the building, which includes the mayor’s office, was in danger of being destroyed a few hours after protesters broke in.
It happened after three states of emergency were declared in the former Soviet state – in the capital Nur-Sultan, in the former capital Almaty and in the western province of Mangistau, where much of the country’s rich oil reserves are being extracted.
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said he had taken over as head of the powerful Security Council from veteran former leader Nursultan Nazarbayev, the former almighty president who resigned in 2019 but retained significant influence.
Earlier, in Almaty, flames could be seen coming from the windows of the city’s administration building, and a fire was reported by the city’s prosecution.
Demonstrations erupted after a ceiling on energy prices was lifted, doubling the cost of liquefied petroleum gas to Kazakhs, which many use to power their cars from 50 tenge (10p) a liter.
The government justified the change by saying that the price previously set was unsustainable.
Police in Almaty used tear gas and stun grenades to drive hundreds of protesters out of the main square.
The clashes lasted for hours late into the night Tuesday in nearby areas, and a state of emergency was declared – including a curfew, restrictions on movement and a ban on mass gatherings.
Mangistau province was also the scene of mass protests.
Wednesday morning (around 03:00 UK time) President Tokayev accepted the resignation of his government.
While doing so, he ordered the government to regulate the prices of fuel and other “socially important” goods and rolled back on the gas price rise that triggered the demonstrations.
But in the hours after, protesters armed with clubs and metal bars stormed into the mayor’s office in Almaty.
Protesters seemed to break through the barricades of the security forces despite the use of the grenades, and shots and explosions could be heard everywhere in the city center.
The local police chief claimed that “extremists” attacked Almaty and had “beaten 500 civilians”.
Police were joined by units from the National Guard and the Army as they tried to bring order to the city.
In a televised speech, Mr Tokayev promised to respond with “maximum harshness” to the protests and did not mention Mr Nazarbayev by name.
The 81-year-old former president has not been seen or heard from in public since the start of the protests, and Mr Tokayev’s take control of the Security Council appeared to mark the sideline for the former president, who had been in control of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 until just over two years ago.
It was unclear whether Mr Nazarbayev’s replacement would satisfy the protesters.
There were also unconfirmed reports on social media that civilians detained security personnel and workers in some industries went on strike.
Amid reports of strikes on Kazakhstan’s oil fields, a supplier, Tengizchevroil, told Sky News: “Tengizchevroil (TCO) has been notified that a number of construction workers have gathered on the Tengiz field in support of meetings taking place in Mangistau Oblast.
“TCO and Business Partner Industrial Relations teams are working together to resolve this situation as soon as possible. This incident has not affected TCO production.”
Shortly after the police chief’s statement, one of the main news sites, Zakon.kz, became inaccessible, and Internet surveillance people reported that there had been a mass outage on Kazakhstan’s Internet services.
Netblocks.org tweeted: “Confirmed: #Kazakhstan is now in the midst of a nationwide internet blackout after a day of mobile internet outages and partial restrictions”.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov in Moscow said it was important that Kazakhstan solve its own problems and that no one should interfere from the outside.
Around the same time, a Russian news site, Lente.ru, reported that a Russian military Il-76 transport aircraft, of the type normally used to move supplies and people, had landed in Almaty, citing the Flight Radar open source air traffic monitor.
The state of emergency decree said that until midnight on January 19, there would be an overnight curfew, restrictions on movement, including of vehicles, into, out of and within Nur-Sultan and a ban on assemblies and strikes.
Under Nazarbayev’s three decades of rule, Kazakhstan attracted hundreds of billions of dollars in foreign investment in its oil and metal industries.
About one-fifth of the population of Kazakhstan with an Islamic majority are Russians, descendants of those who moved there during the Soviet era.