ALMATY (Reuters) - Kazakh police on Monday killed six members of a criminal gang in a shoot-out in an apartment block in the commercial capital Almaty, prosecutors said, in a fresh sign of surging crime in the oil-rich Central Asian nation.
The shoot-out with the armed criminals, who had barricaded themselves in an apartment, broke out in broad daylight in one of Almaty's residential areas after the gunmen refused to lay down their arms, the office of Kazakhstan's prosecutor-general said in a statement on its site www.prokuror.kz.
"All six criminals were killed when police returned fire," it said. "There were no casualties among civilians and security servicemen," it said, adding that all residents of the high-rise apartment block had been evacuated before the police operation.
Prosecutors said the same gang of criminals had killed a police officer and gravely wounded another one, stealing their weapons at the weekend. It said the gang had planned an armed robbery of a consumer goods warehouse.
Quoting police sources, local agencies said the gunmen belonged to an "extremist organization", but prosecutors said the perpetrators had been driven by criminal motives.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev this month rebuked his security services for lapses after the discovery of guns and religious literature in the garage of a house destroyed by fire near Almaty.
Eight people, including four children, died in the house fire on July 12 in the village of Tausamaly outside Almaty, Kazakhstan's largest and most prosperous city.
Prosecutors launched an investigation into "preparation of terrorism", saying that a home-made bomb might have exploded at the house.
Kazakhstan, Central Asia's largest and most successful economy, had until last year not witnessed outbursts of Islamist militancy seen in other parts of Central Asia, a former Soviet region lying to the north of Afghanistan.
But a string of blasts and shootouts have fractured an image of stability in the oil-producing country of 16.7 million people, where 70 percent of the population is Muslim.
(Reporting by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Myra MacDonald)