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Turkmenistan Plans Caspian Naval Base

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov

ASHGABAT (Reuters) -- Turkmenistan has announced plans to build a naval base on its Caspian Sea coast, an area at the center of a territorial dispute with Azerbaijan over oil and gas fields.

The dispute between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan could jeopardize Turkmen plans to join the EU-sponsored Nabucco gas pipeline that bypasses Russia because gas from Turkmenistan would need to pass Azerbaijan to enter the pipeline.

"We are already buying military ships equipped with missiles," President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov said in televised remarks to the national security council. "Naval exercises should be held regularly."

Turkmenistan, Central Asia's biggest gas exporter, and Azerbaijan are at loggerheads over a number of large oil and gas blocks in the Caspian Sea.

Berdymukhammedov last month ordered his government to take the dispute to an international court.

Iran, another energy-rich Caspian state, has opposed dividing the sea into sectors, an approach favored by ex-Soviet republics Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan.

The Turkmen leader made it clear, however, that the navy would not be used to settle such disputes and would instead protect his nation from external threats.

"We have no territorial claims," he said. "There are international terrorist groups which, it should be said, would like to disturb the Turkmen people's peaceful life."

Berdymukhammedov did not specify how large the Turkmen Navy would be but said it should be complete by 2015.

Turkmenistan has shown particular interest in joining Nabucco since April when Russia stopped buying Turkmen gas in a row over supply terms.

The row followed a pipeline explosion blamed by Ashgabat on a sudden cut in gas intake by Russia's Gazprom. Russia used to buy about 50 billion cubic meters of Turkmen gas a year, making it a key source of Turkmenistan's export revenues.