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Kazakhs defiant over demo crackdown

Kazakhstan has said live firearms will continue to be deployed against violent protesters if necessary, in defiance of an international outcry over more than a dozen deaths caused by clashes over recent days.

At least 15 people have been killed since a long sit-in demonstration by oil workers in the south-western town of Zhanaozen descended into a violent confrontation on Friday morning between police and protesters.

The unrest is causing palpable tension among authorities in the energy-rich Central Asian nation, whose economy relies heavily on the oil extracted from the region affected by the disturbances.

Kazakhstan's president Nursultan Nazarbayev has imposed a three-week state of emergency in Zhanaozen, and interior minister Kalmukhambet Kasymov has taken residence in the remote town to oversee security operations.

Although the demonstrating oil workers in Zhanaozen were fired by their employers over the summer, the protests have continued unabated.

Mr Kasymov said that while the demonstrators have conducted themselves with restraint over the past seven months, the situation quickly deteriorated on Friday morning when participants in a children's concert in the main square came under attack.

After overpowering the outnumbered police officers, a mob went on a rampage throughout the city, setting alight the mayor's office, a hotel, the UzenMunaiGas oil company headquarters and the local branch of the governing Nur Otan party, Mr Kasymov said.

He added that police fired their weapons only because they were left with no other option. "Nobody specifically gave the order to open fire in that situation. Every police officer took the decision themselves. When they take a weapon off you, there is no need for an order to be issued," Mr Kasymov said.

He also insisted that the police did not shoot to kill, but fired in the air or in the ground, and that some people may have been fatally struck by ricocheting bullets. He conceded, however, that the police force would have to put in place better contingency planning for the deployment of non-lethal crowd control techniques.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe chairman, Lithuanian foreign minister Audronius Azubalis, expressed his concern at the measures adopted in suppressing the disorder. "Any action to control crowds by law enforcement should be proportionate and in line with international human rights standards," he said.

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