March 1, 2020 / 1:40 PM / a month ago

Kazakh president says smuggler gangs behind deadly ethnic clashes

ALMATY, March 1 (Reuters) - Deadly clashes between ethnic Kazakhs and Dungans in southern Kazakhstan were provoked by rival gangs of smugglers competing for control over the flow of goods in the border area, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said on Sunday.

Eleven people were killed in a series of clashes last month which culminated in a pogrom-style rampage with an angry mob looting and torching shops and houses.

Police have said they were investigating dozens of suspects, but Tokayev on Sunday became the first official to point the finger at smugglers. The Kordai district where the violence broke out houses the main Kazakh-Kyrgyz border crossing point used for large-scale truck shipments of goods.

“It is known that there are people in the area who were actively engaged in smuggling,” Tokayev’s office quoted him as saying at a meeting with district residents.

“Another group also wanted to participate in this business. To put it shortly, because of the control over the sources of illegal income, there was a conflict between two criminal groups.”

While Kyrgyzstan is not a major trading partner for oil-rich Kazakhstan, it serves as an important transit hub for Chinese goods from where they are moved to destinations across the ex-Soviet Central Asian region.

After the clashes, Tokayev replaced the provincial governor and police chief.

In a separate meeting with the district’s Dungan community - Muslims of ethnic Chinese origin - Tokayev urged them to address some of the issues which had strained their relations with the Kazakhs living nearby, such as the language barrier.

“The state will provide all possible assistance in developing your culture and preserving your customs,” Tokayev said. “At the same time, it is very important that your people know the state (Kazakh) language.”

He also urged Dungans - who have traditionally lived in tight clusters in Kazakhstan’s south - to settle throughout the country which is the size of Western Europe but has a population of only 19 million people. (Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Mark Potter)

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