ASTANA (Reuters) - Police said on Monday they had killed nine people suspected of carrying out attacks on security forces in western Kazakhstan and foiled a jailbreak in a central region, in which six criminals died.
Three officers have been killed in two separate gun attacks in the western Aktobe region since June 30, less than two months after a suicide bomber blew himself up in the offices of the state security offices in the regional capital.
The Central Asian State’s Interior Ministry said a fourth serviceman was killed on Friday when gunmen opened fire from a house in the town of Kenkiyak. Security forces stormed the building and killed the assailants after a shootout.
First Deputy Interior Minister Marat Demeuov told reporters an organised criminal group had existed for years in the region, using religious ideology as a guise for the theft of oil siphoned from a pipeline running through the region.
Kenkiyak stands on a major pipeline route linking the oilfields of western Kazakhstan with a trunk pipeline to China.
But the recent attacks, as well as a separate car blast in the capital Astana in May, have led to speculation that Islamist violence could spill over from neighbouring Central Asian states to Kazakhstan. The government has repeatedly denied this.
Kazakhstan, where 70 percent of the 16.4 million population are Muslim, has avoided the militant Islamist violence of the kind encountered by some of its ex-Soviet neighbours.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has ruled Kazakhstan for 20 years, was re-elected by a landslide in April on a platform of economic growth and stability. He prides himself on lasting peace among the many ethnic groups that call Kazakhstan home.
“Kazakhstan cannot afford to relax. The country is located in a very dangerous zone from the point of view of religious extremism, while within the country itself there are also potential flashpoints,” said political analyst Dosym Satpayev.
In a separate incident on Monday, special forces foiled an attempted jailbreak and stormed a penal colony in Balkhash, an industrial town about 600 km (375 miles) north of Kazakhstan’s biggest city, Almaty.
After they failed to escape, 16 hardcore criminals barricaded themselves in one of the buildings. As special forces approached it, a powerful blast occurred, a security officer who took part in the operation, told Interfax news agency.
“Six bodies ripped apart were found at the scene. The others are being sought,” he said. He said the inmates could have detonated an oxygen container not to be seized alive. The container could have also exploded spontaneously, he added.
Earlier on Monday convicts killed a prison guard and wounded two servicemen in a shootout during a failed attempt to escape from the penal colony, a division of the Justice Ministry said.
Writing by Robin Paxton and Dmitry Solovyov, editing by Timothy Heritage