* Fourth day of protest smaller, but signals wider
* Protesters ask who gave police orders to fire on
By Robin Paxton
AKTAU, Kazakhstan, Dec 20 Sacked oil
workers in Kazakhstan demanded on Tuesday to know who ordered
police to fire on protesters during clashes that killed at least
15 people in the Central Asian state's worst violence in
About 100 demonstrators, braving frost and strong winds,
confronted dozens of riot police in Aktau, capital of the
western, oil-producing Mangistau region where protests in two
nearby towns have turned into bloody clashes in recent days.
Violence have not spread beyond the region but political
analysts say the protests suggest that broader public pressure
is mounting for President Nursultan Nazarbayev to relax the
authoritarian system he has built up since Soviet times.
"We demand to know: Who gave the order to shoot at oil
workers?" said Nurzhan Imangaliyev, 27, who was laid off by oil
company Karazhanbasmunai (KBM) in May after he and thousands of
others joined a strike across Mangistau to demand higher wages.
"Why did our relatives die as a result of a peaceful, social
On the first working day after four days of public holiday,
the rally was smaller than those over the long weekend, when
about 500 protesters had gathered daily in Aktau's Concord
Many of the protesters took shelter from biting wind against
the walls of a Soviet-era apartment block under a poster of
Kazakhstan's futuristic new capital Astana, a prestige project
for Nazarbayev, a former member of the Soviet Communist
Politburo who has run Kazakhstan for more than two decades.
At least 14 people were killed in clashes between oil
workers and police in the oil town of Zhanaozen on Dec. 16, the
20th anniversary of Kazakhstan's independence from Moscow.
Another was killed in the nearby village of Shetpe on Dec. 17.
The Kazakh authorities have said police only opened fire
after being attacked by "criminal elements" or "hooligans" and
that the lives of civilians were threatened.
STATE OF EMERGENCY
Kazakh Interior Minister Kalmukhanbet Kasymov told a
government meeting on Tuesday that 110 people had been wounded
in the clashes, including 17 police officers.
Nazarbayev, a 71-year-old former steelworker who declared a
state of emergency in Zhanaozen, has blamed "hooligans and
criminal elements" for violence in which he said 46 buildings
had been damaged. Private houses, shops and banks, as well as
cars and buses were torched, and bank ATM machines were looted.
Movement is now limited in and around Zhanaozen, where a
curfew is in force. Reuters journalists who travelled to
Zhanaozen with a police escort on Monday saw armoured personnel
carriers and riot police patrolling the town of 90,000 people.
In Aktau on Tuesday, Talgat Imambayev, 38, said telephone
contact with his family in Zhanaozen appeared to have been cut:
"We want to be in touch with Zhanaozen. I myself don't know if
my relatives are alive or dead."
The Kazakh prosecutor-general's office said in a statement
on Tuesday: "The situation in the cities of Zhanaozen, Aktau and
the village of Shetpe, as well as in general in the region is
stable and under the control of law enforcement bodies."
Despite the small number of protesters in Aktau, the daily
rallies signal that a pocket of dissent has developed.
Nazarbayev enjoys sweeping powers and brooks no opposition. One
of his aides said this week there was no risk of an "Arab-style
revolution" because Kazakhs supported the president.
In Aktau, not everyone agrees.
"Oil is slavery. Here, there is no democracy," said
Baurzhan, another of the sacked strikers from oil firm KBM,
which is jointly owned by London-listed KazMunaiGas Exploration
Production and CITIC, China's biggest state investment company.
Another laid-off oil worker, a father of four who declined
to give his name, said: "They say hooligans did this, but if you
hadn't been paid for seven months then you would think about
raiding an ATM. The oil workers have mouths to feed."