'Death squad' kills outspoken critic of Kazakh government

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The government of oil-rich Kazakhstan has been accused of operating death squads after a prominent opposition politician was found murdered with his driver and bodyguard. Altynbek Sarsenbaiuly, 43, was the second opposition leader to be found dead in suspicious circumstances in three months.

He had made himself unpopular with the government of President Nursultan Nazarbayev by criticising his daughter and heir apparent, Dariga, for her grip on the country's media.

Though government sources suggested he may have died in a hunting or road accident, the politician's colleagues allege he was killed to order by the former Soviet state's secret police.

He was last seen alive on Friday after which his mobile phone went dead. His body was discovered on Monday with that of his driver and his bodyguard in a ravine on the outskirts of Almaty, Kazakhstan's commercial capital.

Friends asked to identify the bodies claim all three had been shot in the back and in the back of their heads and that the hands of the driver and bodyguard were bound with plastic ties.

The government has ordered a thorough investigation. It has also claimed that the opposition is headline chasing. "[The opposition] needs a political assassination," said the information minister Yermukhamet Yertysbayev. "They are trying to influence the investigation and public opinion."

A statement by various non-governmental organisations has alleged that a "death squad" staffed by former secret service agents was behind the killing. Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, head of the opposition coalition For a Just Kazakhstan, said yesterday: "This wasn't an everyday crime. It was politically ordered."Mr Sarsenbaiuly was co-chairman of the Naghyz Ak Zhol (True Bright Path) party and like many government critics was once a senior member of the regime he came to oppose. He defected to the opposition in 2003 after becoming disenchanted with what he saw as the slow pace of change.

His death comes just three months after the body of another former government minister and opposition figure, Zamanbek Nurkadilov, was found. The official version of his death is that he committed suicide but colleagues and friends have questioned how he was able to shoot himself twice in the chest before delivering a final shot to his head.