Kazakh city on red alert as gunmen attack government buildings

Story highlights

  • Three policemen shot dead during attacks on government buildings
  • It was not immediately clear who was behind the attack
  • Kazakhstan has witnessed popular unrest but extremist terror is rare

(CNN)An anti-terror operation is underway in Kazakhstan's largest city after gunmen targeted government buildings, killing four people -- including three policemen.

At around 11 a.m. local time (1 a.m. ET) on Monday morning, unidentified attackers attempted to break into the interior ministry building in the center of Almaty. A police officer was shot and killed in the process, the interior ministry said in a statement reported by Russia's TASS news agency. The ministry said a district police department and the building that houses Kazakhstan's National Security Committee were also attacked.
    Two more policemen were shot as they pursued the gunmen. They were later confirmed dead, the ministry said, according to TASS. A civilian also died after one attacker attempted to steal his car.
    Local press reports quoted witnesses as saying they'd heard numerous gun shots.
    It was not immediately clear who was behind the attack or the exact number of perpetrators, but the ministry's press service said one of the gunmen has since been detained by the police. No further details were given.
    Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev called Monday's attack "an act of terrorism" and ordered security to be increased across the country.
    Russia's Interfax news agency quoted an Almaty police source as saying "a religious radical and probably a follower of non-traditional Islam was on the rampage" in the city. But unlike many of its neighbors, Kazakhstan has rarely experienced attacks internally by extremist groups.

    Red alert

    A tweet from the U.S. Embassy in the capital, Astana, advised its citizens in Almaty to stay in doors. A travel advisory from Britain's Foreign Office reported incidents at four separate locations in Almaty, adding that Kazakh authorities had now raised the security threat level to red -- its highest level.
    Meanwhile, Russia expressed concern over the "political turbulence" in neighboring countries, but remained confident its borders were secure.
    "Naturally, turbulence at our borders is alarming and we have to keep a close eye on the situation, analyze it," the Russian president's press secretary Dmitry Peskov told journalists Monday when asked whether Russia plans to bolster security along its borders with country's such as Kazakhstan and Turkey -- the latter still reeling from an attempted to coup.

    Popular unrest

    Kazakhstan has often boasted of its stability in a region that has seen its share of conflict. The ninth-largest country in the world by area, it has the largest economy of all the Central Asian states mostly because of its natural resources, according to the CIA World Factbook.
    The oil-rich country has been ruled by President Nazarbayev since the break-up of the Soviet empire in 1989. Despite a landslide victory in the last elections in 2015, human rights groups have accused Nazarbayev of rights abuses and clamping down on dissent.
    Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev called it an act of terrorism
    But the fall in the price of oil allied to other unpopular measures by the government has fomented growing unrest.
    Earlier this year, riot police were called in to break up anti-government demonstrations across the country. Opposition groups had called for protests against plans to privatize huge swathes of farmland.
    In 2011, the country was rocked by weeks of clashes between oil workers and police, leaving at least 16 people dead. The protests were part of a long-running dispute over low pay and the sacking of some workers.