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Turkmenistan: Suspects In Plot To Assassinate President Deny Charges

Almost immediately after the news broke on 25 November that there had been an assassination attempt on Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, the intended victim said he knew who the organizers of the plot were. Niyazov named four former government officials as the men who planned to kill him. All four live in exile abroad and have spoken with RFE/RL's Turkmen Service to deny the accusations against them and offer their version of what is happening in their former homeland.

Prague, 27 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- On 25 November, just hours after a reported assassination attempt against Saparmurat Niyazov, the Turkmen president said he knew who was behind the attack. He said those who carried out the assassination attempt "were hired, given weapons and sent to carry out the shooting. They got high and tried to carry out their orders. Punishment will be brought to them. But they are not the ones who bear the main responsibility. There are others who stand behind them -- Shikhmuradov, Khanamov, Orazov, and Iklymov. They won't go far, and will one day come into my grasp."

Niyazov was referring to former Deputy Agriculture Minister Sapar Iklymov, former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, former Deputy Prime Minister and National Bank chief Khudaiberdy Orazov, and Turkmenistan's former ambassador to Turkey, Nurmukhammed Khanamov.

The four men have several things in common. All were high-ranking officials in Niyazov's government who eventually declared themselves opponents of the regime. All left the country rather than face criminal charges of corruption at home. And all say they are innocent of any connection to the attempted assassination.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service has spoken with all four men. Iklymov, who was singled out by Niyazov as the alleged mastermind, denied plotting the assassination. Iklymov, who has spent the past several years living in Sweden, said he has no interest in returning to Turkmenistan. "For me, there is no post [in Turkmenistan] I need. I left eight years ago and have been living in isolation since."

Iklymov admitted that he opposes Niyazov's regime. But he said the opposition's battle against the Turkmen president has always been an intellectual one and said violence would never be used to advance the cause. Of the other three alleged co-conspirators, Iklymov said he knows them, but "we don't have a warm relationship."

Iklymov was not well-known before the attempt on Niyazov's life. The only reported evidence offered by Turkmen officials linking Iklymov to the attempted assassination is the allegation that the vehicles used by the attackers all belonged to a company owned by one of Iklymov's relatives.

Iklymov said he learned of all these events from the safety of his home in Sweden. But he said he is alarmed that the search for perpetrators appears to be centering on his family back in Turkmenistan. "My relatives have all been arrested -- women, girls, children. It is a disgrace that Niyazov is fighting with women, girls, and children."

A security lockdown in Ashgabat since the day of the attempt has so far reportedly yielded 16 suspects.

But the Russian human rights organization Memorial says the number comes closer to 100. A statement released by Memorial said, "Among those taken into custody, are a large number of relatives of...Sapar Iklymov." The statement said six family members were taken into custody from the house of Iklymov's mother alone.

Former Foreign Minister Shikhmuradov also said that he had no part in the assassination attempt and dismissed Niyazov's charges as an attempt to eliminate four of his leading opponents in a single stroke. "Niyazov simply decided, with one wave of his hand, to get rid of all of us immediately. Therefore, like a great detective or master sleuth, right after the so-called terrorist act he revealed that he knows who the guilty are, who the instigators are, and named them."

Shikhmuradov said Niyazov is overestimating the Turkmen opposition's appetite for violence and what he called "animal methods." Although he suggested such methods might eventually be necessary to bring about change, he said the Turkmen opposition felt no particular need to resort to such tactics at this time.

Khudaiberdy Orazov, the former deputy prime minister and National Bank head, also denied any role in the attack and said the assassination attempt -- which allegedly took place as Niyazov was being driven to work -- seemed strange. "Niyazov has two vehicles -- a Mercedes and a jeep. Both have double-plate armor. These vehicles can not be destroyed by machine guns or even rocket-propelled grenades. Think for a minute. The alleged attackers let Niyazov go by, then they blocked the road in front of the police [following Niyazov]. If the plan had worked it wouldn't have been for eliminating Niyazov."

The attackers used machine guns. They had three vehicles, allegedly all belonging to a relative of Iklymov. A large KamAZ truck blocked the road, allowing armed men to jump out from two passenger cars and begin firing. Niyazov himself said he didn't know about the attack until he arrived at work. Several bystanders and a security officer were reportedly injured in an exchange of gunfire.

Nurmukhammed Khanamov, the former Turkmen ambassador to Turkey, likewise denied any role in the attack. He offered an explanation for why he, Shikhmuradov, Orazov, and Iklymov had been named as suspects in what the Turkmen government has branded an "international terrorist" plot. "[The Western governments that have offered us asylum] understand Niyazov's accusations [about our past corruption] are groundless. These accusations have not brought results. And now, the world is focusing on terrorism and it is fashionable to fight terrorism, so Niyazov wants to portray us as terrorists so we will be returned to Turkmenistan."

Steve Sabol is a professor at the University of North Carolina who specializes in Turkmenistan. He said he doubts the four former officials could have managed to organize the assassination attempt from their distant locations. "I'm not convinced by what I've seen that it could be organized, as Niyazov claims, by Shikhmuradov, Iklymov, or Orazov because they're in exile. So, my feeling is that it's someone inside the country who was recently let go, either from the security forces, internal ministries, or the Agriculture Ministry."

Many Agriculture Ministry officials were sacked earlier this month following the country's extremely poor cotton harvest. The National Security Committee was also purged this year, from the ministerial level down. The Defense and Interior ministries have experience similar mass sackings in years past.

There is so far little to link the four men to the alleged crime. The Memorial statement said the Turkmen authorities "have not offered any evidence of the involvement of the 'new opposition' to the assassination attempt," besides the usual antiopposition statements seen for months now.

Several analysts have pointed out that in a country like Turkmenistan, where Niyazov -- who proudly bears the parliament-bestowed title of "Turkmenbashi," or father of all Turkmen -- rules the country with ruthless authority and a dim view of human rights, there is no shortage of people who may have wished to see him dead.

(RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)