ALMATY -- Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev warned protesters on January 4 that calls to attack government and military buildings were illegal, as he issued a video address to the nation amid protests in several cities.
"The government will not fall, but we want mutual trust and dialogue rather than conflict," he said.
His appeal came shortly after reports of security forces using stun grenades as hundreds of protesters tried to storm the mayor's office in the country's biggest city, Almaty, late on January 4.
Explosions could be heard coming from the vicinity of the city's main square where the mayor's office is located, video uploaded to social media indicated.
Republic Square had been closed to the public and access to mobile Internet connection was limited in Almaty.
Despite the security crackdown, crowds continued to gather and march down the streets of Almaty into the late hours of January 4.
Earlier, Kazakh police detained a second RFE/RL journalist covering the protests in the Central Asian nation as unrest grows over a steep rise in energy prices.
Darkhan Umirbekov, an editor with RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, was detained in the capital Nur-Sultan on January 4 by police at a demonstration just hours after officers briefly held, without explanation, Kasym Amanzhol, the acting Almaty bureau chief of RFE/RL’s Kazakh language service, known locally as Azattyk, as he filmed the third consecutive day of protests over a sudden, dramatic hike in prices for liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), which is used in vehicles.
RFE/RL President Jamie Fly called for Umirbekov and any other detained journalists to be released.
"RFE/RL journalists in Kazakhstan are providing an important public service by covering their fellow citizens’ demands. The Kazakh government must immediately release Darkhan Umirbekov and any other detained journalists. It is outrageous that reporters would be arrested for just doing their jobs," Fly said in a statement.
Umirbekov was later released after being interrogated by police for 4 1/2 hours.
Protests erupted in the western Kazakh region of Mangystau on January 2 over the spike in LPG prices and have since spread to cities and towns across the country.
In the evening on January 4, the government announced it was restoring the price cap of 50 tenge ($0.11) per liter, or less than half the market price, in Mangystau.
Toqaev also signed a decree to institute a state of emergency in the Almaty and Mangystau regions.
Earlier, hundreds of people calling for lower gas prices and for the government to resign gathered in the central squares of the town of Zhanaozen and Aqtau, the regional administrative center for Mangystau, after demonstrators had spent their second night in the area.
Smaller rallies were held in the northern city of Aqtobe, Shymkent in the south, Oral in the west, Almaty in the southeast, and Nur-Sultan, the capital, in support of the protesters in Mangystau and voice discontent over issues such as corruption, unemployment, and low wages.
More than 20 people were detained by police in the protests.
In an attempt to calm demonstrators, President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev announced that a government commission that includes members of his administration has started working in Aqtau to “find a mutually acceptable solution to the problem that has arisen in the interests of stability in our country.”
“Law enforcement agencies were instructed to prevent violations of public order. Demonstrators must be responsible and ready for dialogue,” he wrote in a separate tweet.
The government has said it would “implement a package of measures to regulate” LPG prices.
The price per liter of LPG jumped to 120 tenge (28 U.S. cents) at gas stations in Mangystau at the start of this year, compared with a price of 50-60 tenge (12-14 cents) in 2021.
Zhanaozen was the scene of a 2011 police crackdown against oil workers protesting over pay and working conditions that claimed the lives of at least 16 of them.
Aqtau resident Esberdy Asauov told RFE/RL that about 6,000 mainly young protesters were on the city’s Yntymak Square in the evening of January 3, demanding the resignation of the government and calling on the authorities to fight against unemployment and corruption.
A tent and a yurt were set up on the square. Police did not allow the demonstrators to install stoves and cook hot meals, but locals and businessmen brought them hot food, according to Asauov.
Roads leading to the city have been closed by the authorities.
In Nur-Sultan, police detained at least three people protesting outside the city government building, while mobile Internet connections were disabled in the area.
At least three protesters were held in the city the previous day.
Police carried out at least 10 "preventive arrests" ahead of a planned protest called by fugitive businessman and former Energy Minister Mukhtar Ablyazov, leader of the banned Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK).
In Shymkent, police forcefully removed more than 10 people gathered in front of the local government building, while unidentified men in civilian clothes prevented an RFE/RL correspondent from filming.
Human rights groups have said Kazakhstan’s law on public gatherings contradicts international standards as it requires preliminary permission from authorities to hold rallies. It also envisions prosecution for organizing and participating in unsanctioned rallies even though the nation’s constitution guarantees its citizens the right of free assembly.
Many activists across the Central Asian nation have been handed lengthy prison terms or parole-like restricted freedom sentences in recent years for their involvement in the activities of DVK, as well as for taking part in the rallies organized by the group.