At Least Eight Dead As Villagers Brawl, Torch Houses In Ethnic Clashes In Kazakhstan

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WATCH: Hundreds Flee To Kyrgyzstan After Deadly Ethnic Clashes In Rural Kazakhstan

MASANCHI, Kazakhstan -- Villagers brawled in ethnic clashes in a southern Kazakh district, with groups of men torching houses, overturning cars, and sending hundreds fleeing into neighboring Kyrgyzstan. At least eight people were killed.

The clashes, which erupted overnight on February 8, were some of the worst ethnic violence in years in the Zhambyl region, located about 130 kilometers west of Kazakhstan's commercial capital, Almaty.

The regional governor declared a state of emergency late on February 8, amid fears that more violence could erupt.

It was unclear what sparked the violence, which pitted ethnic Kazakhs against Dungans, a Muslim group of Chinese origin.

Several Kazakh men who spoke to RFE/RL said there were long-standing grievances between the two groups, with much of the Kazakhs' resentment focused on the Dungan population's successes in business and commerce.

Dungans make up much of the population in Masanchi, which was the worst-hit village, and many of the town's businesses are controlled by Dungan families.

Several other outlying villages also reported clashes overnight.

Clashes In Kazakh Villages Leave At Least Eight Dead

Kazakh law enforcement deployed riot police to the area on February 8, hours after the overnight fighting. RFE/RL correspondents reported long lines of police, holding riot shields and truncheons, along roads in the region.

Interior Minister Erlan Turghymbaev said at least 40 people were injured in the clashes, and at least 47 people arrested or detained.

Groups of mainly Kazakh men massed near the cordon of police later on February 8, calling for those detained to be released. The group later dispersed after officials said 47 detained people had been released in Kordai, about 50 kilometers west of Masanchi.

Both towns sit close to the border with Kyrgyzstan.

In Masanchi, many shops and other buildings had been smashed or torched in the unrest. Firefighters were seen in the village and elsewhere, watering down smoldering debris.

Halima Iserova, a Dungan woman in her 50s from Masanchi, said her brother had been killed in the violence overnight.

“Those responsible for these crimes should be punished, not us,” she told RFE/RL.

On February 8, groups of mainly ethnic Dungans could be seen lining up along the Kyrgyz side of the border, while on the other side of the border, Dungans handed out food and offered medical assistance to those coming across.

Dungan refugees from Kazakhstan who have fled the violence are receiving assistance on the Kyrgyz side of the border.

Nearly 20 people were reported seeking medical care in Kyrgyzstan, with at least two being taken to the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, for treatment.

At a hospital in Tokmok, a Kyrgyz town not far from the border, Kharsan Subakhunov, a Kazakh truck driver, said there had been rumors spreading in the village prior to the outbreak of fighting, though it was unclear exactly what they were.

"It was scary. [I was worried] about the [safety] of my family. We stood guard to defend them.... Someone had been spreading fake news -- people had been duped [into believing them], and innocent people ended up suffering,” Subakhunov told RFE/RL

At a press conference in the Kazakh capital, Nur-Sultan, Turghymbaev said 30 homes, 15 shops, and 20 cars had been damaged in Masanchi and other villages in the region.

Many gathered to demand the release of all detained people. The group later dispersed after reports that 47 of those detained had been released.

Footage circulating on social media late on February 7 showed young men, some armed with clubs, marching along the road of a village in the area with buildings on fire. Many of the videos could not be independently verified.

In an unscheduled televised appearance, President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev said he had ordered security agencies to prosecute those spreading hate speech and "provocative rumors and disinformation."

"The most important thing now is to calm the population down," Toqaev said.

RFE/RL Kazakh Service correspondent Assylkhan Mamashuly reported from Masanchi; RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service correspondent Aikol Nurlanbek reported from the Ken-Bulun border checkpoint; Damran Igamberdiev contributed reporting