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Turkmenistan: Niyazov Cracks Down On Foreigners After Assassination Attempt

After an alleged assassination attempt on President Saparmurat Niyazov on 25 November, Turkmenistan is tightening its borders and stepping up surveillance of its resident foreigners. More than half of the 23 people detained in connection with the assassination plot are non-Turkmen. RFE/RL reports on the latest developments may leave Turkmenistan even further isolated from the outside world.

Prague, 4 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In an emergency government meeting on 2 December, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov presented new allegations about last week's reported assassination plot -- and new ideas about how to secure peace and human rights in his country.

According to Niyazov's presidential spokesman, more than half of the 23 people detained in connection with the plot are foreigners. In addition, Niyazov, who initially named four members of the Turkmen opposition in exile as the assassination masterminds, has broadened his allegations to include several countries that he says lent support to the four.

The first on the list is Russia, which Ashgabat has accused of harboring one of the four suspects, Boris Shikhmuradov, a former Turkmen foreign minister and close presidential aide who fled Turkmenistan for Russia last year. Moscow has repeatedly refused to extradite Shikhmuradov, fueling growing distrust between the two countries.

Then there is Azerbaijan, which Niyazov says is guilty of issuing Turkmen visas to foreign criminals. Next is Turkey, which stands accused of financing the assassination attempt and which has seen six of its citizens detained in the sweep of arrests in the country. Finally, there is the United States, whose citizen, Russian-born Leonid Komarovsky, was arrested at the home of the man who has now been named as the main plotter, former Turkmen government official Guvanch Djumaev.

In his eagerness to lay blame during his speech Monday, Niyazov demanded an explanation from Azerbaijan's ambassador to Turkmenistan, a post that had not existed until the day before. "Why did Azerbaijan issue a Turkmen visa to criminals? Rashid [Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov], call Azerbaijan's ambassador to Turkmenistan immediately and demand that Baku provide an explanation. If you want to guard borders, start from this. Why does Azerbaijan issue Turkmen visas for Russian citizens? Because Shikhmuradov bribed them. From now on, don't accept such visas!" Niyazov said.

Niyazov also ordered the creation of a new special committee whose task it would be to interrogate all foreign citizens upon their arrival in Turkmenistan. "From now on, I will have a special service that will find out who is coming to the country, for what purpose, for what period of time, and when they will [leave]. Moreover, this service should clarify the person's past, where he goes, with whom he meets. That should be an obligatory procedure. Only then will there be peace in the country. The National Security Committee and Interior Ministry are responsible for that. We don't want to violate human rights," Niyazov said.

According to Niyazov's new order, foreigners arriving in Turkmenistan must get a special registration, which will cost a minimum of $20-$30, in addition to a Turkmen visa, which costs an average of $70 and is almost impossible to obtain.

Vitalii Ponamarev, a Central Asian program director for the Moscow-based Memorial human rights organization, said that these new procedures are aimed at putting the final seal on a country that was already almost completely isolated from the outside world. "Even without the [new rules for foreigners], entering Turkmenistan has become extremely difficult over last two years, even with tourist visas. I think new procedures will simply create an unprecedented regime of isolation," Ponamarev said.

Ponamarev said that these latest orders by Niyazov -- also known as Turkmenbashi, or Father of all Turkmen -- reflect his long-standing fear of dissent and his desire to suppress it at any cost. "I think all these things are connected with Turkmenbashi's belief that, in general, all dissent and all dangers to his regime may come, first of all, from outside," Ponamarev said.

Ponamarev added that reports from Turkmenistan indicate that army troops and armored vehicles are now being sent to country's borders, especially those with Kazakhstan.

Niyazov's security crackdown is not limited to foreigners. During Monday's emergency government meeting, he also ordered the Ashgabat governor and the head of the National Security Committee to conduct a house-by-house search for suspects and to watch every move of the capital's citizens. "It is my order. The governor of Ashgabat, you will be directly responsible for the capital and its surroundings. Summer houses, all houses must be searched [to determine] who lives there, and if they have proper documents. You, the chief of the National Security [Committee], if some dirt comes out, you personally will face the proper criminal charges," Niyazov said.

Niyazov's actions have gained the attention of the outside world. U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Reeker yesterday accused Turkmenistan of violating international law by failing to provide immediate notification of the arrest of, and consular access to, Komarovsky, who has Russian and U.S. citizenship. Reeker also expressed concern over wide-scale arrests and called on the Turkmen government to conduct a "full, fair, and transparent investigation" into the incident.

Turkey and Azerbaijan have yet to issue an official response to Niyazov's accusations. Russia last week brushed off the Turkmen president's remarks as absurd.

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