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Turkmenistan: Earthquake Causes Heavy Damage

A severe earthquake struck Turkmenistan late yesterday. Official Turkmen sources say no one was killed and damage was light, but sources outside the country and independent news agencies speak of several deaths and heavy damage. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch reports.

Prague, 7 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A powerful earthquake measuring about 7.5 on the Richter Scale struck western Turkmenistan late yesterday (Wednesday).

Information on the quake is still sketchy, but authorities in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat confirm the quake struck around 2300 local time (1800 Prague time). They say there were no casualties or significant damage.

Those official reports, however, are contradicted by Chinese state television, which said that 11 people were killed and another five were injured. The Chinese TV report gave no details and did not specify the source of its information.

Russian news website today quotes local residents as saying that four people -- including a child -- were killed, and eight others injured in Balkanabad (formerly Nebid-Dag), about 400 kms west of Ashgabat.

A spokeswoman (unidentified) for Russia's Emergencies Ministry tells RFE/RL's Turkmen Service that, according to the Russian embassy in Ashgabat, there were apparently no victims. But she says quakes of this magnitude generally do cause casualties and damage.

She says Russian rescuers are ready to fly to Ashgabat if Turkmen authorities request help.

It's also not known where the earthquake's epicenter was.

A Turkmen state-controlled newspaper, quoting the country's seismological institute, says the epicenter was located in the southern part of the Caspian Sea, 80 kms from the village of Esenguly. Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency says the population of the area is estimated at about 68,000.

Other sources put the epicenter in the sparsely populated mountainous Balkan region, some 400 kms west of Ashgabat and 100 kms north of Balkanabad.

Turkey's NTV television channel quotes the France's Strasbourg-based Earth Sciences Observatory as saying the epicenter was around Kizil-Arvat (now called Serdarabat), about 250 kms west of the Turkmen capital.

Other independent sources tell RFE/RL that telephone communications between Ashgabat and Balkanabad have been cut off. They also say the road linking Balkanabad to the Caspian port of Krasnovodsk (now called Turkmenbashi) in northwestern Turkmenistan is closed. The sources could not provide any explanation for the disruptions.

Russia's private NTV television channel says people in Balkanabad are staying out of their homes in the aftermath of the quake. According to the NTV report, police are patrolling the streets and many buildings have been damaged.

Russian news agencies report the quake could be felt in other parts of the former Soviet Union, including Azerbaijan's capital Baku and the Armenian town of Spitak.

Baku was hit last month by a powerful earthquake that left 31 dead and 300 injured. Spitak was entirely destroyed 12 years ago by a quake that killed 25,000 people.

The Uzbek town of Nukus experienced a mild quake yesterday, while lighter tremors reached Tashkent, Samarkand, and Bukhara.

Iran's IRNA state news agency reported that the tremors reached several Iranian cities, including the capital Tehran.

A major earthquake razed Ashgabat in 1948, killing between 45,000 and 100,000 people.

(Guvanch Garaev and Nazar Khudayberdiyev of the Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)