ZHANAOZEN, Kazakhstan -- Officials are claiming that calm has been restored in Zhanaozen, the scene of deadly riots in western Kazakhstan last week. But based on the trickle of information coming from the city, it's an eerie calm at best.
A group of Kazakh opposition members
who sought entry to the city on December 21 as part of a public investigation committee were reportedly turned away. And amid a tight security lockdown, access to journalists is limited to group tours under police escort.
"There was no sign of any protesters in the streets of Zhanaozen, and city was somewhat calm," RFE/RL's Kazakh Service correspondent Saniya Toiken said of her trip to the city on December 21. "Shops were open in the town, but shopkeepers were complaining that there are not many customers coming in these days."
Toiken maintained that it was impossible to get an accurate picture of the mood among locals.
"We were not given any chance to talk to local residents on our own, separately and independently," she said. "All our meetings in Zhanaozen were conducted and supervised by a regional government spokesperson and police."
Zhanaozen, located in Mangystau Oblast, was the scene of rioting on December 16 in which at least 14 people were killed and nearly 100 injured.
The unrest, which was sparked by striking and unemployed oil workers who have been calling for wage increases for months, soon spread to other parts of the oil-rich region along the Caspian coast.
Kazakh authorities have blamed "hooligans" for the violence. Police defended their use of force, claiming they had only shot into the air and the ground, and that victims must have been struck by ricocheting bullets.
Amateur video of the events
, however, appears to show police firing directly at protesters and beating at least one wounded protester with batons.
Presidential adviser Yermukhamet Yertisbaev said on December 21 that Interior Ministry troops, who were involved in the effort to quell the riots, are banned from using firearms against unarmed people -- "even people with metal rods or batons." Firearms, he was quoted as saying by Interfax, "can only be used against those who torch buildings or hold a firearm; that is to say, against people who crossed the line of the law."
Reports Of Higher Casualties
There have been widespread reports that the real casualty figures are much higher than those cited by officials.
Addressing those reports, Zhanaozen commandant Amanzhol Kabylov told a news conference on December 21 that: "I want to stress once again that we have 14 corpses and 99 people having various injuries. The information about 55 [fatalities] has not been confirmed."
Kabylov also announced that eight persons have been arrested, and five detained on suspicion of helping organize the riots.
At least one local resident told visiting journalists on December 21 that her son has been missing since December 16, and that she doesn't know his whereabouts.
According to Saniya Toiken, journalists were not allowed to remain in Zhanaozen, with police telling them "it's not safe, because killings and robberies might take place during the night."
Protests in support of the striking oil workers have been held elsewhere in Mangystau Oblast, including in the regional capital Aqtau.
There residents took to the streets for the fourth straight day on December 21, demanding that troops be withdrawn from Mangystau.
"Police...were watching a small protest in Aqtau [on December 21]," RFE/RL correspondent Toiken reported.
According to the Interfax news agency, armored vehicles and special forces were guarding highways entering Aqtau.
Special forces were deployed in Aqtau airport, and two An-26 military aircraft and two military helicopters were visible on the runway, the agency said.
Quoting Kazakh opposition sources, Interfax also reported that police dispersed an unsanctioned protest on December 21 in the oil-producing town of Zhetibai, some 100 kilometers east of Aqtau.
Opposition politician Bolat Abilov, who is a member of the independent fact-finding committee, was quoted by the news agency as saying that "oil-workers who took part in the protest are now being arrested; dozens of people were detained."
Written by Farangis Najibullah and Merhat Sharipzhan with RFE/RL's Kazakh Service material and agency reports.