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The Uzbek government was hushing up foot-and-mouth disease to protect its reputation, a local media report said on Tuesday. According to some veterinary sources, cases of foot-and-mouth disease were recently detected among cattle in the country. Neighbouring Kazakhstan has also been trying to keep its record on the disease "clean" in an attempt to secure its meat exports to neighbouring Russia. However, Russian authorities recently banned meat imports from Kazakhstan, asserting that "suspect" products could otherwise find their way into Russia via the Central Asian nation's vast territory.

The Open World Leadership Center (OWLC), established by the US Congress in 1999, on Tuesday announced pilot exchange programmes with Ukraine and Uzbekistan. It will be hosting a total of 99 political and civic leaders from the two countries in the US in December 2003, thereby demonstrating its interest in and commitment to the two ex-Soviet republics.

The OWLC is an independent legislative entity working in tandem with the US Department of State and other US executive and judicial branch agencies. Over the past four years, the OWLC's Open World Programme has brought more than 7,000 Russian leaders to all 50 US states to build mutual understanding between the United States and the Russian Federation. In 2003, Congress authorised the OWLC to expand Open World on a pilot basis to other countries of the former Soviet Union.

Some 10 rights activists and members of the public held a protest in front of the Tashkent city administration on Tuesday, demanding the Uzbek interior minister's resignation, local media reported. The activists claimed that "independent" Muslims had been arrested and tortured during Ramadan and on the Id al-Fitr religious festival, and also demanded that opposition political parties and human rights organisations be freely registered. Uzbekistan has been drawing strong international criticism over its human rights record and crackdowns on media and rights groups.

Staying in Uzbekistan, over 400 lawyers had declared a strike to last from 3 to 13 December over pay and rights violations, Surat Ikromov, the head of the Initiative Group of Independent Human Rights Activists of Uzbekistan, reported on Thursday. The lawyers are protesting against what they describe as violations of their professional rights by the interior ministry, the National Security Service, judges, prosecutors, judicial bodies and other authorities, which reportedly interfere with their activities. The lawyers are also protesting against the low fees set by the government for their legal services.

The Uzbek Biznes-Vestnik Vostoka newspaper reported on Thursday that the government had approved a programme for 2004-2009 worth some US $220 million to improve the supply and quality of drinking water to communities in the central Bukhara Province and southern Kashkadarya Province. Under the programme, it is planned to reconstruct water intake structures and hydroelectric power plants within five years. Centralised water supply networks with a total length of 258.8 km are expected to be built in the two province, which would enable 257 rural settlements to be supplied with water. It is envisaged that the programme will be financed by foreign loans totalling $184.5 million, while the balance will be met by the government.

Going north to Kazakhstan, the treatment of two children diagnosed with haemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome was under way at a hospital in Uralsk, the capital of West Kazakhstan Province, local media reported on 30 November. Their condition was considered to be serious, a local news agency reported, citing the Kazakh Emergency Situations Agency.

The World Bank is financing several Kazakh projects worth over $520 million, according to the Interfax-Kazakhstan news agency. "The World Bank is currently giving financial help for carrying out seven projects in agriculture, environmental protection and infrastructure development. Their total cost is over 520m dollars," the agency said on Tuesday, adding that the World Bank had also announced its decision to allocate $40,000 to implement a small grants programme for the country's rural population.

On Wednesday, which was the International Day of Disabled Persons, Kazakh people living with disabilities appealed to the president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, parliament and government to reject a bill on social protection, describing it as discriminatory. "This draft law is in many ways a declarative one, and people with limited opportunities are viewed in it as objects of medical care and social protection. Such an approach discriminates a person," the Kazakh disabled people's organisations said in a statement.

In Turkmenistan, it was reported on Monday that President Saparmurat Niyazov had dismissed National Security Minister Batyr Busakov, in a move appearing to stem from Niyazov's growing frustration over the continuing activities of some of his political opponents in exile. Annageldi Gummanov, the 36-year-old head of the State Border Service of Turkmenistan and commander-in-chief of the Border Troops, was appointed to replace him. Niyazov often publicly sacks his officials, but this marks the fourth time in less than two years that he has replaced the head of national security.

On Wednesday, Turkmen official media said Niyazov had again ordered a purge of top staff working for the country's television channels. The Neitralny Turkmenistan newspaper reported that Gurbansoltan Handurdyeva, the overall controller of domestic TV, had been sacked, this being at least the 10th time the post's holder has been removed since Soviet rule ended in 1991. In a recently televised intervention, Niyazov pronounced Turkmenistan's domestic TV channels "uninteresting, tedious and repetitive", even though they are dominated by his own "philosophical writings", often adapted to music.

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) reportedly said on Tuesday that it would resume extending loans to small- and medium-sized businesses in Turkmenistan after a three-year suspension. The EBRD put a 1996 loan agreement with Turkmenistan on hold in 2000 due to restrictions on currency conversion imposed by the Turkmen Central Bank. The bank and the Turkmen government had signed a deal last week to extend the agreement, which envisaged $15 million in loans, the EBRD office in Turkmenistan said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Tajikistan and China signed an economic cooperation agreement on Wednesday, a Tajik media outlet reported. Under the agreement, the Chinese government is expected to provide the country with assistance worth some $3 million for the implementation of social and economic programmes. The agreement was signed by Economy and Trade Minister Hakim Soliyev and the Chinese ambassador, Wu Hongbin, the report said.

An independent Tajik weekly, Ruzi Nav (New Day), has been refused publication, a move seen by local media activists as official intimidation. The publishing house, run by the Tajik presidential administration, refused to print the newspaper without notice or explanation. Fakhriddin Kholbekov, the newspaper's deputy editor, said on Wednesday that the case "greatly affects the position of the free and democratic media in Tajikistan".

Meanwhile in Kurgan-Tyube, an independent television station was closed down by the city authorities after broadcasting a documentary about Tajik migrants in Russia. It will reopen in a few weeks' time on condition that it agrees to submit all its programmes to the authorities for censorship before broadcasting them.

Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev visited the western US state of Montana on Wednesday on a mission to secure foreign investment in his country. Accompanied by an official delegation, Akayev met Montana government and business leaders, with whom he discussed trade opportunities, as well as investment in the construction and improvement of hydropower facilities in Kyrgyzstan. The ties between Kyrgyzstan and Montana began in 1997 when Kyrgyz troops came to Fort Harrison for training by the Montana National Guard. The move was prompted by Kyrgyz fears of terrorist attacks, and Montana was chosen by virtue of the similarity of its climate and geography to those of Kyrgyzstan.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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