- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 21, 2006

ALMATY, Kazakhstan — The head of Kazakhstan’s security agency yesterday offered to resign after five members of an elite anti-terrorist unit were arrested in the killing of a leading opposition figure.

The body of Altynbek Sarsenbayev, a vocal critic of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, was found Feb. 13 with bullet wounds in the back and the head.

The opposition has accused senior government officials of ordering the assassination.

Mr. Nazarbayev, who was outside the country last week, made his first public comments on the killings in a two-minute televised speech last night.

The killings presented “a challenge to our society and our government,” he said.

“Whoever ordered, organized and carried them will receive the most severe punishment,” he added, without mentioning the resignation offer of Nartai Dutbayev, head of the security agency KNB, the successor to the Soviet-era KGB.

The five arrested men belonged to the security agency’s Arystan (“Lions”) unit, which was created in August to thwart terrorist attacks on oil installations in the Caspian Sea, the agency said.

KNB called the men rogue agents.

According to an Interior Ministry official, the five men had been recruited by an unidentified man to kidnap Mr. Sarsenbayev on his way home on the night of Feb. 11 for $25,000.

The official stopped short of saying that the arrested men had played a role in later taking Mr. Sarsenbayev, his driver and his bodyguard to an apple orchard in the foothills outside Almaty, Kazakhstan’s main city, where the hostages were shot once in the back and once in the head with a small-caliber handgun.

The driver and the bodyguard had their hands tied, said friends of Mr. Sarsenbayev who saw the bodies after they were discovered by a shepherd on Feb 13.

The arrests of his men prompted Mr. Dutbayev to offer his resignation, KTK television, a private channel thought to be controlled by members of the Nazarbayev family, reported last night.

Mr. Sarsenbayev, a 43-year-old former minister and ambassador, was Mr. Nazarbayev’s confidant until 2003, when he defected to the opposition.

Mr. Sarsenbayev’s killing followed the mysterious death in November of a prominent member of the opposition, Zamanbek Nurkadilov, whose body was found at his home with three gunshot wounds. Police said they thought that death was a suicide.

Kazakhstan has agreed to investigate the Sarsenbayev case jointly with the United States, saying this would avoid criticism about the investigation’s transparency. The U.S. Embassy refused to comment on the arrest of the security agents, Reuters news agency reported.

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