At least 17 people, including 11 “extremists,” were killed during a series of attacks in oil-rich Kazakhstan, an increasingly authoritarian ex-Soviet nation that has largely avoided violence by religious zealots, officials said Monday.
Groups of gunmen attacked two arms shops to seize weapons and rammed a minibus through the doors of a national guard base in the northwestern Kazakh city of Aktobe on Sunday, Interior Ministry spokesman Almas Sadubayev said in televised remarks.
He said the attackers killed three civilians and three security officers and wounded scores more, but were repelled in a counter-terrorism operation. Eleven assailants were killed and seven more captured.
Sadubayev said the attackers followed “radical, non-traditional religious movements”, a euphemism used in Kazakhstan to refer to hardline Muslim fighters.
However, one analyst expressed doubt over the official version, saying law enforcement agencies often imitate counter-terrorism operations by accusing average criminals of siding with religious fighters.
“Kazakhstan is actively fighting the so-called religious extremism, but these cases are not covered by mass media and are not studied by human rights activists,” a Central Asia analyst Maria Yanovskaya told Al Jazeera. “Sometimes they arrest a group [of people] for robbing a shop and accuse them of financing terrorism.”
Unlike Russia and Kazakhstan’s other ex-Soviet neighbours in Central Asia, the oil-rich nation of 18 million has rarely seen attacks instigated by religious hardliners.
But Aktobe, a city of 400,000 near the Russian border, was the site of the first suicide bombing in Kazakhstan’s history in 2011.