* Hundreds of oilmen hold protest rally in Aktau
* New violence near village in Kazakh oil region
* Riots unprecedented in nation’s recent history
* President imposes state of emergency on oil city
* Nazarbayev’s aide says Kazakh “Arab spring” impossible
By Robin Paxton
AKTAU, Kazakhstan, Dec 18 (Reuters) - Hundreds of demonstrators confronted riot police on Sunday as Kazakhstan’s biggest protests in decades spread to the capital of a western oil region where 15 people have been killed in clashes.
The unrest in Mangistau region, triggered by the sacking of oil workers, is the worst to hit Kazakhstan in the 20 years since it gained independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev has declared a 20-day state of emergency in the city of Zhanaozen, in the same region. Fourteen people were killed there in rioting that broke out on Friday, the prosecutor-general’s office said on Sunday.
Late on Saturday, one person was killed and 11 people were wounded in a clash with police in the village of Shetpe, bringing the total official death toll to 15 and the number of wounded to around 100.
Public protests are rare in Kazakhstan, Central Asia’s largest economy and biggest oil producer. Nazarbayev, 71, has overseen more than $120 billion in foreign investment during more than two decades in power, but tolerates little dissent and puts stability before democratic freedoms.
Yermukhamet Yertysbayev, a close adviser to the president, said “foreign funding” had fuelled the riots, but declined to elaborate. He said the situation was “firmly under control”.
“There will be no Arab-style revolution. You can see that Kazakhstan is calm,” he told Reuters by telephone. “Kazakhstan’s entire multi-national population supports the head of state.”
“There is a rally in Aktau,” he said. “You know, there are also rallies in New York and Cairo ... Citizens have the right to protest, so let’s not draw global conclusions.”
On Sunday morning, around 500 angry protesters gathered near Concord Square of Aktau, the regional capital of 160,000 people on the Caspian Sea, some 2,600 km (1,600 miles) southwest of the capital Astana.
Braving biting frost, they faced a large force of black-clad riot police holding shields, some armed with automatic rifles.
“Take the troops out of Mangistau!” read a long banner in Kazakh, held by a dozen protesters.
One demonstrator, Sarsekesh Bairbekov, said he had been fired by oil firm Karazhanbasmunai (KBM) in May. “I worked there for 20 years. I was a welder and lost an eye,” the 58-year-old told Reuters. His monthly wage was 120,000 tenge ($810) before he was fired.
KBM is jointly owned by London-listed KazMunaiGas Exploration Production and CITIC, China’s biggest state investment company.
“We want them to take away the troops,” Bairbekov said, referring to the state of emergency imposed in Zhanaozen after the riots. “They killed local people,” he added, still wearing his maroon and blue KBM overalls.
In the evening, Deputy Prime Minister Umirzak Shukeyev, who heads a government commission on the Zhanaozen events, spoke to a small group representing the striking oil workers in the square, under a New Year’s tree and inflatable figure of Ded Moroz, a Russian equivalent of Santa Claus. Riot shields held by police occasionally fell over in the wind.
The representatives asked him not to confuse the workers’ dispute with the violence in Zhanaozen.
Asked what action he would take, Shukeyev said: “If we see that your conditions are fair and there is something we can do, we will make recommendations.”
Many protesters called into question the official death toll announced after the riots in Zhanaozen, suspicious that the true figure may be higher. One oil worker, who declined to be named, said he had just visited a blood donor centre in Aktau. “It is working round-the-clock. If only 10 people were killed, why is it working round-the-clock?” he told Reuters.
Nurlan Mukhanov, deputy chief doctor at the regional hospital, said 35 wounded had been brought from Zhanaozen and another three from Shetpe. “The majority have gunshot wounds,” Mukhanov said. “We should be ready for any situation.”
“KAZAKHS SHOOTING KAZAKHS”
The clashes soured national celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of independence and unnerved a government focused on stability and economic growth.
A Foreign Ministry official said Nazarbayev had not changed his plans to visit Moscow on Dec. 19-20.
A large group of people supporting Zhanaozen protesters stopped a train carrying more than 300 passengers on Saturday, the Kazakh prosecutor-general’s office said in a statement.
Most later left but some 50 “hooligans” set the diesel locomotive on fire and moved into the nearby village of Shetpe, setting the New Year tree on fire, smashing shop windows and throwing petrol bombs at police, the statement said.
“Taking into account the fact that the hooligans presented a real threat to the life and health of peaceful citizens and policemen, the latter were forced to use weapons,” it said.
One of the 12 people brought to a local hospital with gunshot wounds died later, the statement said.
In Aktau, numerous posters of Nazarbayev’s Nur Otan ruling party dot the dusty streets with their green and white painted Soviet-era apartment blocks.
“The authorities don’t really know what is happening in their own home,” said Ivan Rabayev, a 74-year-old retired construction worker. “Kazakhs are shooting Kazakhs.”
The riots began on Friday when sacked oil workers and sympathisers stormed a stage erected for an Independence Day party and smashed sound equipment in central Zhanaozen, a city of some 90,000 people.
They later set fire to the city hall, the headquarters of a local oil company, a hotel and dozens of other buildings, including trade centres and houses. They also burned cars and buses and plundered cash machines.
Nazarbayev, a former steelworker who has overseen rapid market reforms but tolerates little opposition in his hydrocarbon-rich nation of 16.6 million, declared a state of emergency and a curfew in Zhanaozen until Jan. 5.
Public protests and strikes are banned, while movement around Zhanaozen and access to and from the city is restricted.
State-controlled KazMunaiGas EP, which sacked 989 workers in Zhanaozen after staff went on strike for better pay and conditions in May, said 2,500 people were on strike at the height of the dispute. Representatives of workers who took part in the strike, which is now over, have put the maximum number at almost 16,000.