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Bird Flu: Turkey's Neighbors Tighten Borders As Alarm Mounts

A Turkish official rounds up poultry in Turkey's capital Ankara on 9 January. (epa) As the number of human cases of bird flu rise in Turkey, neighboring countries are tightening border controls, looking carefully for signs of the disease, and preparing to fight bird flu. But despite those efforts, the EU has banned poultry imports from them.

Prague, 10 January 2006 (RFE/RL) -- In the Turkish town of Dogubeyazit, a scattering of chickens peck and cluck their way around a farmyard, oblivious to the terror gathering around them.

A week after the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu took the lives of three children from the same family in Dogubeyazit, chickens continue to run freely in the backyards of a town in which an estimated 90 percent of households keep poultry. Van Province in eastern Turkey is one of the poorest parts of the country and, for many people here, these birds are all they have to stave off hunger.

Panic is spreading, with people at a loss to know what to do.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan has tried to assure both Turks and the international community that his government had the situation under control. "All the necessary measures that needed to be taken are being taken by the health and agriculture ministries," he declared on 11 January. "We have organized a crisis center. You must not pay attention to exaggerated statements."

But no amount of reassuring words can disguise the fact that there are now 14 confirmed cases in Turkey of humans infected by the virus and that many more cases are under investigation.

It has also spread beyond Van, as far as the Black Sea coast and the capital, Ankara. Poultry deaths linked to bird flu have also been registered in Istanbul.

The Alarm Sounds

Little wonder then that Turkey's neighbors are increasingly alarmed.

On 10 January, Iran announced that it was closing a border crossing with Turkey, and Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia have all banned the import of Turkish poultry.

Armenians feel particularly vulnerable, as Dogubeyazit lies just a few kilometers from the border.

Grigor Baghian, head of Armenia's State Veterinary Inspectorate, says mandatory sanitary controls have been imposed at all border crossings. "We have instructed the relevant authorities to check the baggage of individuals coming from Turkey and to make sure that not a single chicken feather or egg is brought to Armenia," he says.

Farmers in the impoverished settlements that dot the border fear that they could be next. When dozens of chickens died in the village of Vosketap last week, there was panic.

But it subsided when the vets arrived. Nvard Abrahamian, 12 of whose chickens died, says "our vet inspected the dead chickens and concluded they were killed by another disease. He then inoculated the remaining chickens and said we have nothing to worry about if they stay alive."

At the State Veterinary Inspectorate, though, Grigor Baghian is making no promises that Armenia is safe. "No cases of bird flu have been registered in Armenia to date. The virus has not reached the republic, but the situation in neighboring countries has put us in a high-risk zone," he cautions. "That means outbreaks of the disease cannot be ruled out tomorrow, the day after, or after that."

In Georgia, which also has a long border with Turkey, the agriculture minister, Mikheil Svimonishvili, was at pains to assure people that, so far, there have been no outbreaks of bird flu in the country.

It was message repeated in Azerbaijan by the head of the state veterinary department, Ismail Hasanov. But he spoke of tough controls, particularly in the Nakhichevan region, which borders Turkey. "The veterinary service is working intensively on the borders. We are following disinfection procedures, we have prepared large stocks of disinfectants, protective clothing, special equipment and we have enough equipment to carry out disinfection measures," he said.

Europe Bans Poultry Imports

None of which was enough to stop the European Commission announcing on 11 January that it was banning the import of poultry and feathers from all six states bordering eastern Turkey: Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Syria, Iran, and Iraq.

Russia, too, said it was tightening control of its borders with Georgia and Azerbaijan, while its chief medical officer, Gennadii Onishchenko, said it might be necessary to impose a temporary travel ban to Turkey if the situation there continued to deteriorate.

In the meantime, he urged Russians not to visit Turkey. "Why does this worry us? First of all, because of its immediate proximity to our borders, and secondly, because in January there will be an increase in ordinary human flu and, viewed against this background, there is a danger that we will not detect the spread onto our territory of this particular [H5N1] type of flu."

Russia has no immediate borders with Turkey.

As the H5N1 strain of bird flu continues its seemingly inexorable global advance, doctors are calling for calm. There is still no evidence, they say, that avian flu is spreading between people. All confirmed cases in Turkey were caused by direct contact with birds.

(RFE/RL's Azeri, Armenian, and Russian Services contributed to this report.)

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