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Gunfight In Turkmen Capital Remains Shrouded In Secrecy

  • Farangis Najibullah

The drinking-water plant in Ashgabat where the fighting took place

The drinking-water plant in Ashgabat where the fighting took place

Turkmen authorities have spoken little about the all-night gun battle in Ashgabat on September 12 that left many dead and caused part of the city to be closed off. While state media reported that police neutralized a drug mafia in the capital, others described the gun battle as infighting between different clans within the security services, and still others connected it to Islamic radicals.

In his first comment on the shoot-out, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov acknowledged that several police and security officers were killed.

Speaking at a State Security Council meeting on September 15, Berdymukhammedov said it was an operation to arrest criminals involved in drug trafficking. Then he ordered the State Agency for Combating Narcotics "to work on the project of setting up a center for training specialists on combating drug trafficking." Berdymukhammedov also pointed out the necessity of training "specialists on combating terrorism and the establishment of special military unit."

The state-run media -- without giving details about the gun battle -- also insists that it was an operation against armed drug dealers. But many people, including regional experts, exiled Turkmen journalists, and politicians, are questioning Ashgabat's official version of the event.

In a country where the government controls all sources of information, and free media and political dissent are virtually nonexistent, the lack of information about the shoot-out in the capital has led to much speculation.

Central Asian and Turkmen opposition websites -- which are not accessible in Turkmenistan -- as well as some Russian media have given significant coverage to the shoot-out and offered opinions about the event, some of which differed sharply from the version given by Turkmen authorities.

Citing unnamed rights groups, fergana.ru reported that the incident was in fact a quashed attempt to overthrow the Turkmen government.

"Turkmenskaya iskra," a Turkmen opposition website, claimed that "a group of radical oppositionists plotted a forceful action" against the president.

Some Russian sources claim the shooting broke out amidst infighting between different clans within Turkmenistan's security forces.

Other sources, including the "Chronicle of Turkmenistan" and the Russian newspaper "Vremya novostei" reported that "religious radicals" and "well-equipped militants" were involved in the clash.

Act Of Protest?

There are no official casualty figures, and various websites say at least nine security service members were killed. Some put the death toll among the government forces as high as 40.
The drinking-water plant from the opposite, northern side


Many Turkmen opposition and rights activists say regardless of who was standing off against government forces that night, it was an act of protest by ordinary people who were fed up with poverty, rampant unemployment, and the lack of any alternative means to voice their dissent.

Nurmuhammed Hanamov, the exiled leader of Turkmenistan's Republican Party, tells RFE/RL's Turkmen Service that some people might support a religious group as the only option to protest against the government.

"The situation in Turkmenistan today will radicalize people for sure. Why? People don't see any alternatives; all power is concentrated in one person's hands who dictates his way," Hanamov says. That situation has radicalized some Turkmens, he adds.

Berdymukhammedov has introduced some reforms and has, to some extent, opened up the energy-rich country to foreign investors since he came to power in 2007.

However, there are still no opposition political parties in Turkmenistan. And despite the country's vast oil and natural-gas resources, many ordinary Turkmen live in poverty.

Turkmenistan -- which is seen by many as an alternative supplier of energy for Europe -- has been one of the most stable countries in Central Asia due to the firm hands of its leaders, Berdymukhammedov and his predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov or Turkmenbashi, who died in 2006.

Michael Laubsch, the head of the Berlin-based Eurasian Transition Group, tells RFE/RL's Turkmen Service that the latest incident in Ashgabat casts doubts on the stability of the government.

"Social stability inside the country is also decreasing terribly," Laubsch says. "We still don't know the background of the riots and, well, demonstrations in Turkmenistan.... The International Crisis Group already mentioned in the past that besides Ashgabat, there were also riots and demonstrations in Mary," in Turkmenistan's southeast.

However, according to Anna Walker, a Central Asian expert at the Economist Intelligence Unit in London, it is too early to speculate about the meaning of the incident for Turkmenistan's stability, or about the real perpetrators behind the violence in the normally tranquil Turkmen capital.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report

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