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Kazakhstan's ex-leader rejects reports that he fled abroad

FILE - A portrait of former Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev at the city hall building after clashes in the central square blocked by Kazakhs...

FILE - A portrait of former Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev at the city hall building after clashes in the central square blocked by Kazakhs...

MOSCOW (AP) — Kazakhstan's influential former leader released a short video on Tuesday in which he talked about the violent unrest that engulfed the ex-Soviet nation earlier this month and rejected reports alleging that he fled the country amid tensions with the current president.

It was the first time that Nursultan Nazarbayev, who ran Kazakhstan for 29 years after it gained independence and kept an influential post after stepping down as president in 2019, spoke publicly about the protests and the bloodshed they descended into.

Nazarbayev also denied that there were tensions between him and his hand-picked successor, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Some speculated that a rift between the two could have played a role in exacerbating the unrest.

Protests in Kazakhstan, an oil and gas-rich nation of 19 million in Central Asia, began on Jan. 2 in a small western town over the near-doubling of fuel prices. But they quickly spread across the vast country, growing into a general protest against the authoritarian government and turning into violent riots that killed over 220 people.

Tokayev sought to calm the crowds by announcing a 180-day cap on fuel prices and removing Nazarbayev as head of the National Security Council, an influential post he occupied since stepping down. The move was seen by some as an attempt to end the former leader’s patronage that had ignited tensions among Kazakhstan's ruling elite, further fueling the unrest.

In his video address Tuesday, Nazarbayev, 81, rejected these allegations. “There is no conflict or confrontation within the country’s elite. The rumours in this regard are completely groundless,” he said.

He also brushed off reports that claimed he had fled the country, and backed Tokayev's move to take over as head of the National Security Council.

“In 2019, I handed over the presidential authority to Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, and have ever since been a retiree, currently enjoying retirement in the capital of Kazakhstan, having never left anywhere. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has the full power, he’s the chairman of the Security Council,” Nazarbayev said.

According to Kazastan's officials, 227 people died in the violence, including 19 police officers and servicemen. Saturday's toll of 225 rose on Tuesday, when the country's Health Minister Azhar Giniyat said two more people who were injured in the unrest died in the hospital.

More than 4,300 people were injured, and thousands have been detained by authorities.

To quell the unrest, Tokayev requested help from the Russia-led military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which is made up of six former Soviet nations. The bloc sent more than 2,000 troops to Kazakhstan and withdrew them after several days.