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Central Asia Report: January 18, 2008

Tajikistan: New Curbs Target Islamic Students

By Farangis Najibullah

A madrasah in Gisar, north of the Tajik capital

Tajikistan's education minister has extended official strictures on personal and religious freedoms with an assault on deeply ingrained practices at one of the country's major institutions of Islamic learning.

Less than a year after he effectively eliminated Islamic-style head scarves in public schools, Abdujabbor Rahmonov has ordered male students at the Islamic University of Tajikistan to don suits and ties and shave their beards, and he has vowed to introduce teacher uniforms there and ban head scarves, known as hijabs.

It is the latest indication of the balancing act confronting Tajik officials who are outwardly keen to discourage unsanctioned religious practices from getting a foothold. That effort has included the closing and even bulldozing of "illegal" mosques and testing of imams to demonstrate their fitness to lead congregations.

Speaking in the Tajik capital on January 11, Rahmonov said Tajik traditional clothing -- a dress reaching below the knee, worn with pants -- is modest enough to wear at Islamic schools and during prayers, and does not violate Islamic guidelines.

He then ordered male students at the Islamic University to shave their beards and wear suits and ties to classes. Rahmonov also announced that a special uniform would soon be introduced for teachers at the school.

"Of course, we understand that it is an Islamic educational institute and it has certain conditions and requirements," Rahmonov said. "However, I emphasize once again that the order and regulations in madrasahs have to be similar to the rest of the educational institutions."

Jaloliddin Alizoda, the head of the Islamic University, said he was unaware of any imminent dress guidelines for religious teachers and declined to comment on the issue.

Female students at the Islamic school mainly wear long dresses and head scarves.

Rahmonov has described the hijab as a "foreign culture for Tajiks." Likewise, he added that men at the Islamic University should not wear Middle Eastern-style hats.

Many in Tajikistan -- including madrasah students -- suggest that Rahmonov's latest "dress code for religious students and teachers" will be met with compliance despite dissatisfaction with the new regulations.

But several male students at the Islamic University told RFE/RL's Tajik Service that they were stunned by the education minister's latest announcement. Some said Rahmonov's latest revision of the dress code at the Islamic school is unnecessary because the clothing of Islamic students in Tajikistan is not radically different from that in secular schools and universities.

"This is not [an important] issue at all," said one religious student, who did not want to give his name. "I choose my clothes to wear at home or in the madrasah the way I like them. No matter what kind of decree they issue, I will dress the way I want, with or without a tie."

Tough To Oppose

Mahmadali Hait, a member of Tajikistan's Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), which is the only registered Islamic political party in the region, said the minister's order will force many of the university's several hundred students to leave so that they can continue dressing the way they wish.

Education Minister Abdujabbor Rahmonov has taken a hard line on outward signs of faith

Rahmonov said his ministry "is preparing a guideline for teachers' clothing" and will "control compliance with the guideline."

After announcing the enforcement of a ban on the hijab last year, Rahmonov turned up personally at universities to check whether students were obeying his order.

Despite a torrent of complaints from the students and often their parents, women wearing head scarves were not allowed to enter university buildings and were given a clear choice between the hijab and their education. Most of them eventually gave in to the ban and removed their head scarves.

One student, Davlatmoh Ismoilova, appealed to a Tajik court to defend her choice to wear a hijab. But she lost cases against the university and the Education Ministry.

It is not only a new dress code that might have an impact on the staff of the Islamic school. Rahmonov also announced that all religious teachers will have to take an exam, and those without diplomas or the required teaching qualifications will be expelled from the university.

Similar tests were given to all imams in Dushanbe mosques in August by the mayor's office. It said that "unqualified imams have to be replaced by those who have the appropriate qualifications and knowledge."

More than 300 unregistered mosques in the capital alone were shut down by Tajik authorities in 2007. At least two improvised mosques in the capital were bulldozed amid a drive that critics -- including IRP leaders -- claimed was undue pressure on Islamic institutions and values and a crackdown against religion. The Dushanbe mayor's office said some of the former mosques will be turned into police stations, beauty salons, and community centers.

In the northern Sughd Province, the authorities warned that some 350 mosques needed to gain the proper license or they would be closed.

Government officials deny the actions represent an assault on Islam. They claim the mosque closures are simply part of an operation against unlawfully operating businesses and organizations, which include unregistered mosques.

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

Kazakh President's Former Son-In-Law Sentenced To 20 Years In Jail

By Bruce Pannier

Rakhat Aliev (file)

Rakhat Aliev was once one of the most powerful and influential people in oil-rich Kazakhstan. But after an Almaty court ruling late on January 15, he's now a fugitive from the law.

The court found Aliev guilty of kidnapping, organizing a criminal group, extortion, robbery, misappropriation of state property, and fraud, and sentenced him in absentia to 20 years in prison along with the confiscation of his property.

Aliev's sentence begins the moment he is detained, if he is ever detained. The judge also recommended that Aliev be stripped of all the state titles and awards he collected during his years in government. But his former father-in-law, President Nursultan Nazarbaev, has to make that decision.

Aliev was tried in absentia since he lives in Austria. He had just been dismissed as Kazakhstan's ambassador to Austria and to the international organizations based in Vienna -- notably the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) -- when allegations against him were first made public in May 2007.

Nazarbaev had made Aliev the ambassador to Austria after accusations surfaced in January 2007 that he had kidnapped three top officials from Nurbank and beat and threatened them into selling their stakes in the bank at very low rates. Two of those bank officials are still missing.

Armangul Qapasheva -- whose husband, Zholdas Timraliev, is one of the missing bank officials -- sent her lawyer, Marzhan Aspandiarova, to the trial. Aspandiarova expressed her client's outrage at the verdict, which she described as "too lenient."

Aliev was on trial with more than 20 other people. The state-appointed lawyer for the defendants was Lena Rebenchuk, who surprisingly seemed to agree with the court process and the outcome. "Some accusations were dropped and we supported that fully," she said. "I think the process was objective."

Rebenchuk's comments contrasted, again strangely, with those of the prosecutor, Almas Khudaibergenov, who indicated he thought the case would probably be subject to appeal.

"For now we cannot say the verdict was completely legitimate, because [the sentence] might be appealed and overturned," Khudaibergenov said. "Every incident should be checked again and all the laws applied to the case should be reviewed. After that everything should be clear."

The court also handed out sentences to others involved in Aliev's illegal affairs. The former head of the National Security Committee, Alnur Musaev, received a 15-year prison sentence and the confiscation of his property. He was also tried in absentia.

Questions Remain

A physician by training, Aliev served as first deputy foreign minister, tax police chief, and first deputy chairman of the National Security Committee. He also headed the Kazakh Olympic Committee and was the point man in negotiations with the OSCE for Kazakhstan's bid to be chairman of the organization, a goal the country recently achieved.

While serving in these posts, Aliev acquired vast wealth. Among the property the court ordered seized were all of Aliev's homes and other property, cars, and an airplane. Aliev is free in Austria because he was able to post the 1 million-euro ($1.45 million) bail an Austrian court imposed on him when Kazakhstan first asked for his extradition. Another Austrian court later rejected the extradition request, ruling that there was no guarantee that Aliev would receive a fair trial in Kazakhstan.

But while the Almaty court verdict brought to a close at least one chapter in the "Aliev Affair," several questions remain.

Among those are: who gets Aliev's confiscated property? When his wife Darigha, President Nazarbaev's eldest daughter, divorced Aliev last year she received some of his possessions and property. Does she get the rest now? And what about their eldest child, Nurali, who now, at the age of 22, is chairman of the board at Nurbank, the company in which his father used strong-arm tactics to acquire a majority stake? It seems he will keep his position.

The biggest question is how much more jail time Kazakh courts will give Aliev. This first trial is over, but another trial is set to start on January 23. That trial will be held by a military tribunal behind closed doors and will hear evidence that Aliev and about 12 other people planned a coup d'etat and disclosed state secrets.

Aliev is suspected of being responsible for a number of audio recordings leaked late last year to opposition websites that were purportedly conversations between high-ranking Kazakh government officials -- both current and former -- talking about illegal or unethical activities. Aliev has said he is collecting evidence about corruption in the Kazakh government and will hand that information over to prosecutors in Austria. So Kazakhstan has probably not heard the last of Rakhat Aliev.

(RFE/RL's Kazakh Service Director Merhat Sharipzhan contributed to this report.)

Kyrgyzstan: IAEA Seeks Answers To Radioactive Seizure

By Jeffrey Donovan

IAEA headquarters in Vienna

The UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has lodged a formal request with the Kyrgyz government to provide more detailed data on the troubling incident that unfolded in the last days of 2007.

But an IAEA official has told RFE/RL that the Vienna-based nuclear watchdog is still awaiting an official reply from Kyrgyz officials -- a week after they announced that dangerous levels of the radioactive substance cesium-137 had been discovered aboard a freight train bound for Iran. The IAEA official added that Bishkek so far had not asked the agency for any assistance or support on the matter.

The seizure itself occurred days before its disclosure by the Kyrgyz government.

In late December, radiation detectors alerted Uzbek border guards to the presence of dangerous material. The guards then sent the train back to Kyrgyzstan, where the State Environmental Agency says it was first informed of the incident on December 29. Kyrgyz officials later seized the substance and stored it in a special holding area.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service on January 9, Almabek Aitikeev, a senior official with the Kyrgyz Emergency Situations Ministry, offered some details about the material. It was identified as cesium-137, a product of nuclear reactors and weapons testing that is often used in medical devices and gauges.

"Not quite a bucketload of radioactive waste material was there mixed in with sand, dust, and snow," Aitikeev said. "We did our work and sealed up the waste on December 31."

But details remain sketchy. The Kyrgyz National Security Service continues to decline requests for comment on the incident, as does the Kyrgyz state railway company Temir, which loaded the material in Kyrgyzstan along with nonferrous scrap metals onto the train, which belonged to a Tajik company. Kyrgyz officials confirm the train's ultimate destination was Iran, which is linked to the region via railway through Turkmenistan and regularly imports Central Asian scrap metal.

Cesium In 'Very Dangerous' Form

Peter Zimmerman, a U.S. expert on nuclear proliferation and terrorism, says he finds the story disturbing on a number of levels. "There may be contamination elsewhere. We simply don't know because, first off, the Kyrgyz authorities have not been forthcoming," Zimmerman told RFE/RL. "And second, we don't have any other data, so we are speculating. If a [radioactive] source was broken, and the material, which looks like glow-in-the-dark table salt, could have been scattered well before it was found. And some amounts could be anywhere."

That raises serious public health concerns. But Zimmerman cautions that the lack of information makes it extremely difficult to speculate just how serious the risk could be.

What is clear is that cesium-137 is a dangerous radioactive isotope. Zimmerman, the former chief scientist at the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, says that it would be the favored substance of terrorists seeking to build a radiological "dirty bomb" or to launch a so-called "I-cube attack," which would use the easy ingestion, inhalation, or immersion of the powdery chemical to kill on a large scale.

"Cesium chloride is very much like table salt," Zimmerman says. "It dissolves in water and it can be blown away, and so on. And this is a very dangerous form to use, simply because it can enter the environment easily and it can be spread easily by a terrorist."

Last August, in an op-ed in "The New York Times," Zimmerman and his colleagues warned of the dangers of cesium and other similar substances falling into terrorists' hands. "We believe that a first measure should be to get all cesium sources converted to something that uses a solid rather than a powder form. We think that's safer," he says.

As for the Kyrgyz case, Zimmerman believes that is unlikely to have involved any malice or smuggling, and that negligence or incompetence remain the chief culprits. Zimmerman added that one possibility is that a gauge containing the cesium-137 got caught up in the scrap metal in the shipment.

"In all probability, a radioactive source -- which was used for measuring the thickness of a steel band or something of that sort, or aluminum band -- was left behind when the equipment was scrapped, and that source got mixed in with the scrap metal in the shipment," he says. "This happens even in the most developed countries with the best radiation protection, once or twice a year."

Where the source may have come from is still a mystery.

Like many former Soviet states, Kyrgyzstan has areas of poorly secured radioactive material -- as does neighboring Tajikistan, the home country of the company that owns the train.

Tajik Nuclear Leaks

Although the Tajik nuclear plant at Vostokredmet was shut down after the Soviet Union's collapse, the company that runs it still manages 10 dumps of radioactive materials around the northern Tajik city of Chkalovsk. Reports say that only one of these radioactive dump sites has been completely secured, one is still active, and the others are only partially closed.

In comments to RFE/RL's Tajik Service, Shavkat Bobojonov, the head of the Vostokredmet nuclear plant, denied any possibility of legal transfer of radioactive substances from the area. "There is no trace of cesium in the plant," he said. "Now, we don't sell any kind of scrap metals from what we have. We need it ourselves for our own work. Our radioactive scrap metals are collected separately and they remain here."

Two years ago, Tajikistan created a National Nuclear Agency in a bid to attract international investment to fully secure its radioactive materials. That move followed registered cases of nuclear smuggling out of the country.

"No [recent] cases of smuggled radioactive materials have been registered in Tajikistan," Muzaffar Yunusov, the deputy of the head of Vostokredmet, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service. "In the [Sughd] region and in the country, some cases of smuggled radioactive materials or 'illegal transfers' were registered, but that was two or three years ago."

Kubat Osmonbetov, a Kyrgyz geologist, raised the possibility last week that the Tajik train may have been used in the past to transport radioactive material from the Vostokredmet area -- and that the remains of that material had somehow been left in the wagon.

But for now, the experts can only speculate -- at least until Kyrgyz officials respond to the IAEA's request for more detailed information.

Turkmenistan-Iran: Good Relations Take Turn For The Worse

By Bruce Pannier

Presidents Berdymukhammedov (left) and Ahmadinejad -- not so friendly anymore?

Back in June, they were "the best of friends."

At least, that's how Turkmen media portrayed a Tehran meeting last year between President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov and his Iranian counterpart, Mahmud Ahmadinejad. It was an assessment in line with a tradition of friendly ties with Iran maintained by Berdymukhammedov's late predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov.

It is a tradition that, six months later, appears dead.

In recent days, long-festering strains in the Turkmen-Iranian relationship -- which involves gas, electricity, fishing rights, and water sharing, as well as sensitivities surrounding northern Iran's 3 million ethnic Turkmen -- have been made public. And as Ashgabat and Tehran haggle over gas supplies and other issues, ordinary people in Iran and Turkey are bearing the brunt of the dispute during a winter of record cold.

Iranian-Turkmen talks on the price of gas exports broke down in December. Then, as the New Year began, Ashgabat cut supplies to Iran, blaming it on maintenance work on the pipeline.

But Iranian officials have now made it clear that the issue clearly involves price. Iranian Oil and Gas Minister Gholamhossein Nozari recently said that talks on raising the price for Turkmen natural gas, from the current $75 to $140 per 1,000 cubic meters, would resume only when the supplies were restored. Nozari added that if deliveries did not resume, Iran could refuse to buy Turkmen gas.

The Turkmen government responded that due to Iran's failure to pay for already-delivered gas, Ashgabat lacks the funds to repair the pipeline -- and hence, to resume the flow of gas to Iran.

Iran's national gas company has denied that Iran needed to pay any arrears. And on January 15, Iranian Deputy Oil and Gas Minister Akbar Torkan said Turkmenistan was trying to "put forth new claims" and called the decision to cut supplies in the heart of winter "immoral."

It all marks quite a departure from typical Iranian-Turkmen ties. "Iran was one of the countries with which Niyazov had a charitable relationship," Russian-based political analyst Artem Ulunyan told RFE/RL's Turkmen Service. "It's well-known to many that when there was talk [in Turkmenistan] about the [ethnic] Turkmen population in Iran, Niyazov said, 'don't even think about that, don't ask any questions that could be considered in Tehran as antagonistic,' or he personally would punish those who did."

Iran reciprocated by never speaking about the often bizarre behavior of Niyazov, whom Turkmen media gave a semi-divine status, or about Niyazov's book "Rukhnama" (Guide to the Soul) that Turkmen media and state officials spoke of as a second Koran.

Other Reasons Behind Gas Dispute?

There are other recent events that make the timing of Turkmenistan's suspension of gas supplies intriguing.

On January 4, a group of Iranian Turkmen was fishing illegally in the southern Caspian Sea when Iranian patrol boats spotted them and, according to some sources, rammed the boats and shot dead one of the fisherman. That sparked protests from the ethnic-Turkmen community, some of whom attacked government buildings and torched state vehicles.

After the riots, some 300 ethnic Turkmen were arrested and some reports say many of them are still in detention for antistate activities. Such reports may or may not influence Ashgabat's relations with Iran, but neither are they likely to hurry efforts to restore gas supplies to Iran.

Other potential irritants in the Iranian-Turkmen relationship include the use of water supplies in their border areas and perceived discrimination against ethnic Turkmen, who also complain of Iranian efforts to forcibly convert them from Sunni to Shi'ite Islam.

But the gas dispute is interesting for another reason, one that will not have escaped the notice of the Iranian government.

Over the last year, a succession of high-level U.S. delegations has visited Turkmenistan. The most recent was a visit by U.S. Senator Richard Lugar (Republican, Indiana) to Ashgabat on January 11-13, which came on the heels of visit by Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Erica Barks-Ruggles in December.

Alex Vatanka, a security analyst for Jane's information group, says it is still too early to say whether the United States might be pushing Turkmenistan to take a tougher stance with Iran, Washington's longtime foe. But he said such speculation is warranted, given the geopolitics and Iran's domestic situation.

"The supply of gas from Turkmenistan at this crucial time, winter period, not showing up will make Ahmadinejad more [domestic] enemies," Vatanka says. "And in the Iranian context, I think it's important because that gas from Turkmenistan is not destined for the big cities -- Tehran and so forth -- where Ahmadinejad has almost no support base. Where Ahmadinejad has some support base is in the provinces, like those regions that have been receiving Turkmen natural gas and rely on that gas. And if those people are not getting the gas then the point is, again, they'll be angry above all at the president. So, from a U.S. point of view, this is to undermine the presidency of Ahmadinejad, and I think, timing-wise, this is strategically important because you are only two months away from the parliamentary elections in March and you have presidential elections in 2009."

Vatanka said that if Washington does have enough clout to achieve such a feat, that alone would represent a major change in Central Asian politics. "If the United States has been able to compel or impel [Turkmenistan] to do this, to cut the gas to Iran, the big message obviously there is, wow, the U.S. suddenly has found its leverage in Turkmenistan, a Central Asian state that it has traditionally not been very influential in."

...Or Is Dispute Part Of A Wider Struggle?

But in a region famous for great-power tussles, the United States is hardly the only actor.

Aleksei Miller, the CEO of the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom, which buys most of Turkmenistan's gas, said in December that officials from the United States and European Union have been telling Turkmen officials that the price of Turkmen gas is too low. Miller made those remarks as Gazprom raised the price it pays for Turkmen gas from $100 per 1,000 cubic meters to $130 for the first half of 2008 and $150 for the second half of the year.

Last year, the EU resurrected the idea of a trans-Caspian pipeline to bring Turkmen gas to Europe, where consumers would pay a higher price than Turkmenistan's current customers, who are essentially Russia and Iran.

But there is at least one more theory on the gas cutoffs, which have prompted Iran in turn to reduce gas exports to customers in Turkey. Professor Mehmet Seyfettin Erol of Ghazi University in Turkey speculates that Russia could be behind Ashgabat's newly assertive energy stance.

"As far as I understand, improving ties between the U.S. and Turkey concerns not only Iran but also makes Russia feel uneasy," Erol says. "Russia's refusal in the last few days to increase gas exports to Turkey -- for the first time -- also shows that Russia has some role here. In a situation like this, I think Turkey is currently facing energy pressure led by Iran and Russia. I think there is not any serious problem between Turkmenistan and Iran; the role of Russia is important. I think, and as far as I understand, there is a new game being played, and Russia is the main actor behind this game."

Meanwhile, ordinary people in northern Iran and eastern Turkey are paying the price for the gas cuts. In both areas, temperatures have dropped to record lows ranging from minus 3 to minus 27 degrees Celsius.

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

Kyrgyzstan: The Art Of Political Assassination

By Bruce Pannier

Edil Baisalov, soon after an assault on him in April 2006

The art of political assassination is alive and well in Kyrgyzstan -- or so says Edil Baisalov.

Until a month ago, the 30-year-old democracy activist was considered to be one of the Central Asian country's most promising young politicians, a social democrat with verve and a modern vision for Kyrgyzstan. But that was before last month's elections handed President Kurmanbek Bakiev's ruling party near-complete control of parliament in polls that Western observers said fell short of international standards.

Days before the December 16 vote, Baisalov was barred after complaints by election officials that he posted on his website a photograph of the ballot set to be used in the upcoming vote. Election officials, who said the photo could be copied to make fake ballots and stuff ballot boxes, sued the Social Democratic Party to cover the cost of printing new ballots -- some $570,000. Baisalov was banned from elections in which he was set to lead the party's list of candidates.

Baisalov, who for several years has organized demonstrations for democracy and against official corruption including election fraud, then fled to neighboring Kazakhstan, in fear for his safety following an attack by unidentified assailants.

"There were attacks on me," Baisalov told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service from Almaty. "The authorities couldn't protect me. In answer to my questions about the assailants, the authorities told me they were people from Issyk-Kul who were on the run in Almaty. I am also in Almaty. Let them [the authorities] find those who attacked me."

Victim Of A Political 'Vendetta'

But why the backlash against him the first place? Baisalov maintains that it "was a provocation against the Social Democratic Party." He says it was done "in order to arrest me, to send me to jail and make me into a criminal." Baisalov describes himself as the victim of a political "vendetta."

Baisalov adds that he posted the photo in order to point out serious flaws in the ballot before the elections. And he denies that posting it compromised the election process in any way. He says the accusations against him are "groundless and without basis," and that the ballots "didn't have any protection," like a watermark, but "were printed on regular paper," and that he had contacted election authorities before posting the photo.

For now, Baisalov has temporarily suspended himself from the post of secretary of the Social Democrats, which won 11 seats in parliament -- the only opposition party to get any seats. But he remains defiant about challenging Bakiev and the government, and vows sooner or later to return to the political fray.

"All this talk about me fleeing, that I was seeking asylum, that I became a refugee, are complete lies," he says. "I am Kyrgyz. But now in Kyrgyzstan injustice is ruling. I will fight against this wherever I am, in Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan. I will not leave politics. I will always remain in politics."

Baisalov did not say when he planned to try to return to Kyrgyzstan, but human rights activists will be watching his case closely.

In 2006, Human Rights Watch called Baisalov "a respected human rights defender and champion of the rule of law" after he was attacked for organizing rallies to prevent a known criminal kingpin from running for parliament. Bakiev and former Prime Minister Feliks Kulov in the past also voiced support for Baisalov. But both men later became objects of his criticism, including calls to leave office.

(Burulkan Sarygulova conducted the interview and Amirbek Usmanov contributed to this report. Both are with RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service.)

Tajikistan: Energy Shortages, Extreme Cold Create Crisis Situation

By Farangis Najibullah

The wintry conditions, such as on this road in Baljuvan district, east of Dushanbe, are causing some Tajik bus drivers to charge passengers twice the price for tickets.

A crippling shortage of energy, combined with severe weather conditions, have left many people living in cold, dark homes in Tajikistan and other parts of Central Asia. Coupled with increasing prices for food and gasoline, it's creating a miserable winter for many.

Official meetings and press conferences in Tajikistan these days reveal the extent of the problem. Freezing temperatures have forced people to wrap themselves in coats and scarves inside their offices and homes.

Temperatures in Tajikistan and elsewhere in Central Asia have dropped below minus 20 degrees Celsius in some areas. Heavy snowfalls and avalanches have disrupted public transport in many cities and villages. Some bus drivers who are brave enough to go on the icy roads have been charging passengers twice the price for tickets.

At least 80 people have been stranded on a mountainous road in Tajikistan for nearly three weeks after an avalanche wiped out a section of highway linking the capital, Dushanbe, to the country's north. At least three people died in the incident, while the others -- children and women among them -- have been waiting weeks to be rescued, and help has not yet arrived.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Tajik Service via mobile phone, a woman who identifies herself as Mrs. Muhammadieva from the Panjakent district says the stranded passengers have been keeping themselves "barely alive in the middle of nowhere." Muhammadieva says they have been living in a small weather-observation station, where the lone station worker "has given all his food supplies to the trapped passengers."

"No one from the relevant authorities has offered us any help," Muhammadieva says. "[There are now] some 200 people stuck here. There are pregnant women among us. We can't go anywhere. We are grateful to this man who gave us food and shelter. No one from the government or elsewhere is providing us any assistance."

Tajik officials say that "the rescue works continue and that helicopters have dropped food and other necessities" to those who are trapped in the mountains.

Households Hit Worst

The situation is difficult for other Tajiks, as well. Amid the bitter cold, the country once again faces a severe shortage of electricity and gas.

Tajikistan's potential to produce electricity is estimated at over 300 billion kilowatt-hours per year -- the greatest hydroelectric capacity in the region -- but it is dependent on its neighbors to provide electricity during the winter. The country imports electricity from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, but it has been reduced to almost nothing due to power shortages in those two countries, a situation that emerges every year.

In many villages, people receive one or two hours of electricity a day. Even in Dushanbe, electric power is limited and residential areas have no electricity overnight. The only exceptions to the power limits are government offices, hospitals, and industries in some other "strategically important" cites, such as Tursunzoda, which has a large aluminum plant.

"You can't imagine how cold our homes are. We have small children. My youngest daughter is 8 months old, and for the past two days I haven't wanted to take her out of her cradle because our home is so very cold." -- Sabohat, Dushanbe resident

The centralized heating systems in Dushanbe and other cities have been almost entirely paralyzed since the early 1990s, and residents in apartment blocks have no alternative means to heat their homes in the absence of energy from the city.

Sabohat, a Dushanbe resident, says people wear several jackets and even overcoats when they go to bed. She says that when the temperature drops too low, all family members gather under one blanket to keep warm.

"You can't imagine how cold our homes are. We have small children," Sabohat says. "My youngest daughter is 8 months old, and for the past two days I haven't wanted to take her out of her cradle because our home is so very cold."

Tougher Times Ahead

The bitter cold confronts already beleaguered Tajiks with another on a long list of problems, as they are also faced with widespread unemployment and miserable wages amid increasing prices for food and gasoline.

A group of women and children in the southern town of Kurgon-teppa gathered at the office of the local government on January 9 to demand that the authorities help them solve the energy problem. The government in Dushanbe has offered no explanation for the electricity shortage, while the state-run media largely ignores the problem.

Tajik officials, however, have announced an electricity price hike of 20 percent that kicked in this month, to allow the "government [to] repay its debt to the World Bank."

And there's no relief in sight.

Rashid Gulov is an official at Barqi Tojik, a state company that oversees the production and consumption of electricity. Gulov says that limits on electricity are going to be even more "strict." According to Gulov, the prices for electricity will continue to rise until 2010.

The unusually cold winter coupled with energy shortages has struck other parts of Central Asia, too.

In Uzbekistan -- and even in energy-rich Turkmenistan -- people have also faced shortages of gas and electricity.

Some in Uzbekistan say they have turned to "traditional methods" to heat their homes. There are reportedly no trees left in some Uzbek villages where people have cut them down to heat their homes and cook food. This practice has even affected the silk industry, because entire plantations of mulberry trees have been destroyed in some areas. Mulberry leaves are the only source of food for silkworms.

Additionally, growing fruit is the main source of income for many villagers, and they are already predicting a smaller harvest this year because of the energy shortages and severe weather.

In some provinces in Turkmenistan, villages have been burning saxaul plants -- an ancient Turkmen way to heat homes. Saxaul, which grows in the Karakum Desert, has been listed as a rare plant at risk of extinction.

Rahim Esenov, who lives in Ashgabat, says that electricity has been cut off in some areas several times since December. "The centralized heating system is not warm because its pipes have not been repaired for years," Esenov says. "They should have been repaired during the summer or fall to get ready for cold weather. The pipes can't heat our homes, and we have to use electric heating devices, but there is no electricity so we can't use those either."

In the meantime, the weather forecast is for the freezing temperatures to continue through most of January.

(RFE/RL's Tajik, Uzbek, and Turkmen services contributed to this report.)