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CENTRAL ASIA: Weekly news wrap
ANKARA, (IRIN) - This week opened with the funeral of Turkmen president Saparmurat Niyazov on Sunday, one of the region's most authoritarian leaders, who single-handedly ruled the Central Asian state following the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991.
Niyazov - who styled himself as the Father of All Turkmen or Turkmenbashi - died on 21 December of heart failure, leaving many outside observers worried over possible political instability in the largely desert, but energy-rich nation.
While thousands took to the streets of the capital Ashgabat to pay their respects, many others remembered the former Communist strongman as a dictator, who fostered a personality cult around himself by renaming months of the year and cities after himself and members of his family.
During his rule, Niyazov, who had little tolerance for political dissent, wielded absolute power over the country's 5 million inhabitants and had routinely been accused of gross human rights violations.
Following an alleged assassination attempt on his life in November 2002, he was accused of jailing or exiling his political opponents, creating no functioning political institutions and leaving no obvious successor, the BBC reported.
After his death last week, exiled Turkmen political figures called on Western nations to press for real democratic president elections, vowing to overthrow any new leader who failed to introduce political reform.
However, on Tuesday, Turkmenistan's top legislative body - a 2,500-member strong council of clan elders and local government officials - ruled that acting president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov and five other people - none of them from the exiled opposition - could run for the polls officially set for 11 February.
According to the Washington Post, the selection of acting president Berdymukhamedov as a candidate, despite a constitutional provision barring an acting president from running, appeared to strengthen Berdymukhamedov and his backers as a largely invisible power struggle unfolds.
In Kyrgyzstan, pro-government political parties on Tuesday urged President Kurmanbek Bakiyev to dissolve parliament as a political crisis in the mountainous former Soviet republic reportedly deepened.
The call came a day after lawmakers narrowly failed to pass changes to the constitution that would have strengthened Bakiyev's powers amid a power struggle between the president and parliament, the AP reported.
In November, opposition protests forced Bakiyev to sign amendments curtailing his powers. But last week Bakiyev won parliament's agreement to consider new changes that would give him back the authority to appoint the prime minister, other cabinet members and regional governors, the report said, adding that the agreement was struck after the government resigned over disagreements with lawmakers.
Also in Kyrgyzstan, an earthquake with a magnitude of 5.5 on the Richter scale struck the north of the country on Tuesday, causing cracks in buildings but no casualties, the state Seismology Institute said.
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the UN Resident Coordinator in the country immediately established contact with the Kyrgyz Ministry of Emergency Situations.
Preliminary information received by the authorities indicated mainly damage to housing, electric lines and communications and the need to provide heating for both the homeless and local medical aid centres.
In a statement issued by OCHA on Wednesday, some 2,400 homes, one kindergarten and one library had reportedly been damaged, while 10 homes had been totally destroyed. There was no power supply or phone communication with the affected area, but the government had mobilised its resources, and in a letter to the UN Resident Coordinator, had appealed for international assistance in order to provide food, heating equipment, clothing, medicine and construction materials.
Meanwhile, Tajikistan has agreed to pay almost double the current price for natural gas from neighbouring Uzbekistan next year, the head of Tajikistan's state-owned gas company confirmed on Thursday.
Under deals signed in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, earlier this week, the AP reported that Tajikistan would buy 700 million cubic metres of Uzbek natural gas for US $100 per 1,000 cubic metres, up from the current price of $55, said Tajikgaz director Fatkhiddin Mukhsiddinov.
Central Asia's most impoverished country uses up to 2 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually, about half of it consumed by Soviet-era aluminum and cement plants that are cornerstones of industry in a country still recovering from a 1992-97 civil war.
But this year, Uzbekistan supplied only 610 million cubic metres out of a planned 750 million, following Dushanbe's inability to pay, the AP report explained.
Uzbekistan, the third-largest natural gas producer in the former Soviet Union, has repeatedly suspended energy supplies to economically struggling Tajikistan and another neighbour in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan, over alleged debt.
Tajikgaz had to borrow $2 million from a bank in September to help pay for Uzbek gas, but has cleared all its debts now, Mukhsiddinov reportedly said.
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