Kazakh government warns of crackdown on eve of planned protest rallies

ALMATY (Reuters) - Authorities in Kazakhstan warned on Friday they would crack down on organizers of protests planned against President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s government and an unpopular land reform it has proposed.

Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev speaks during the Kazakhstan People's Unity Day celebrations in Almaty, Kazakhstan, May 1, 2016. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

Opponents of Nazarbayev, who has been in power since 1989, have called for rallies on Saturday in all major cities, extending a series of demonstrations that started last month in response to plans to privatize large tracts of farmland.

Although relatively small so far, with the biggest no more than a few thousand strong, the rallies have become the most visible and geographically broad display of public discontent against the president’s rule in more than a decade.

Nazarbayev has given some ground by putting the land reform on hold, but the protests now threaten to tap in to broader discontent about worsening economic conditions in the tightly-controlled oil-exporting nation.

Prosecutor General Zhakip Asanov said on Friday that people calling for fresh rallies were provoking illegal actions and spreading “false information which showed signs of inciting social and ethnic discord.”

“Law enforcement bodies are obliged to prevent any violations and immediately take the necessary legal measures including criminal prosecution,” he said in a statement published by his office.

Highlighting security issues, police in Kazakhstan’s biggest city Almaty said they had found five caches of petrol bombs, metal rods and gasoline containers near its two main squares, where rallies have been called for Saturday.

They also found several pistols sawn-off shotguns and ammunition in two apartments, detaining five suspects, police said in a statement.

Earlier this week, police and courts detained at least half a dozen activists in several cities who had planned to take part in Saturday’s protests.

Almaty police prevented a demonstration earlier this month by blocking access to the square where it was supposed to take place.

Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov; editing by John Stonestreet