Kazakh authorities say 10 people have been killed as striking oil workers clashed with government forces in the country's western Manghystau region.
Footage broadcast by satellite channel K+ showed men in worker's outfits charging a stage erected for the 20th anniversary of independence from the Soviet Union, which was being celebrated throughout the country on December 16.
The violence occurred in the town of Zhanaozen when police tried to clear the town's main square, which has been occupied for more than six months by hundreds of workers at an oil facility controlled by state-owned KazMunaiGaz.
They had been protesting for better salaries and working conditions.
In a statement December 17, KazMunaiGaz Exploration Production said some OzenMunaiGaz employees had failed to show up for work because of safety fears arising from the violence.
The statement, quoted by the Reuters news agency, said Kazakhstan's Interior Ministry was providing armed security at key oil production units. The statement said the firm was maintaining daily oil production levels by keeping employees working round-the-clock.
Phone, Internet Cut
At a press conference , Kazakh Prosecutor-General Askhat Daulbaev said: "Ten people were killed as a result of mass disorder. There are also some wounded, including police officers.”
He did not say who had been killed, or why.
Daulbaev said a group of investigators led by the interior minister had flown to the city on the orders of President Nursultan Nazarbaev "to take all necessary measures to preclude further criminal acts, identify and punish organizers of the disorder, and restore public security in the town."
In a sign that Kazakhstan's authoritarian government is moving to curb the possible spread of violence, Internet users reported being unable to open independent news websites or Twitter, and phone services were said to be disrupted.
Late this evening local time, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported that all phone, Internet, and mobile connections into Zhanaozen appeared to have been cut off. Officials in the regional capital, Aqtau, told RFE/RL that they have been unable to reach anyone in the town.
Meanwhile, Russian news agencies reported that special police units were entering Zhanaozen.
A spokesman for UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said his office was "very concerned." Rupert Colville said, "We call on the Kazakh authorities to investigate the incident promptly and to ensure that law-enforcement agencies do not use excessive force in maintaining public order."
Thousands of oil workers have been on strike in Zhanaozen since May, demanding a pay increase, equal rights with foreign workers, and the lifting of restrictions on the activities of independent labor unions in the region.
A spokeswoman for the governor of Manghystau Province, Zhanna Oshybaeva, told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that the violence began after city workers began to set up the square for independence celebrations.
"Zhanaozen city authorities decided to install yurts in the city's main square, where there was a gathering of oil workers who had been sacked for failure to report for work, to create a festive atmosphere for the celebrations for local residents,” Oshybaeva said.
“But this fact made the strikers gathered in the square unhappy and they started throwing rocks and whistling."
WATCH: TV footage of the unrest in Zhanaozen
In interviews before the phone service was cut, local residents and striking workers gave their accounts of what happened.
Marat Zhusipbaev said police had fired on the protesters. "I saw eight people get shot down right in front of me. Now they are shooting at me. Eight men died. We've just sent them [to hospital in a car]. The emergency services are not able to help them all,” he said.
“They were under fire too. It's not so bad when someone takes a bullet in the leg. But many are shot in the neck. There are normal people as well as oil men [among the injured]."
Another striking oil man, Orazbai Tursynov, told RFE/RL: "People are fed up with this [negligence]. During the cold winter days, the number of striking oil men on the Central Square [in Zhanaozen] might seem to be decreasing. But they have a huge number of relatives [supporting them]. All of them are hungry and tired of living with no money. We wanted to make our position clear."
Aitkul Nurova, a 16-year-old schoolgirl who said her father was injured during the shooting, also reported seeing security forces open fire: "There are these OMONs [special security forces]. Some people were shot in the head and are dying. Some of them were shot in the chest and are badly injured. Some of them are dying. So many of them."
A local administration building and the office of a KazMunaiGas subsidiary, OzenMunaiGaz, was reportedly burned during the violence.
In a statement, KazMunaiGaz said its oil-producing facilities were working as normal, although the company had stepped up security.
Earlier this year, its subsidiary, KazMunaiGaz EP, was hit by a three-month strike at its OzenMunaiGaz unit near Zhanaozen, following the firing of 989 workers.
Manghystau Oblast, which includes Kazakhstan's energy-rich Caspian coast, is believed to account for 70 percent of the country's oil output, which itself amounts to more than 10 percent of the national gross domestic product.
Opposition Social Democratic Azat (Free) Party co-Chairman Bolat Abilov blamed the authorities for what he called the “horrible” events, and called for an end of the independence celebrations.