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In a bid to boost humanitarian work in Central Asia, a meeting of regional transport officials in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, agreed to facilitate transport of humanitarian relief goods, particularly aimed at helping neighbouring Afghanistan.

The two-day conference of the Intergovernmental Commission of TRACECA (Transport Corridor Europe Caucasus Asia), which ended on 25 April, also decided to look into visa regulations, sea transportation, and ways of facilitating the transport of humanitarian aid in the region. It also entrusted a working group to harmonise tariffs for sea transport and to improve navigation on the Caspian and Black Seas.

TRACECA members comprise Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Romania, Tajikistan, Turkey, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. The project was developed by the European Union (EU). The aim is to link Europe and Central Asia by improving transport and communications, thus reviving one of the ancient routes of the Great Silk Road. The first intergovernmental commission meeting was held in Baku, Azerbaijan, in September 1998.

Regional cooperation took Iranian President Mohammad Khatami on a five-nation tour of Central Asia, which concluded on Thursday. During his tour, Khatami and leaders of the five nations discussed ways of promoting bilateral and regional cooperation. Khatami also attended a summit meeting of the five nations bordering the Caspian Sea, warning them against any unilateral action on tapping the sea's resources.

He also used the opportunity to enhance bilateral cooperation with Tajikistan, agreeing with Tajik Prime Minister Akil Akilov, that economic cooperation and bilateral trade, which doubled to US $40 million last year, still needs to be grown.

In the Iranian capital, Tehran, the foreign minister's advisor for international affairs, Mohammad Mehdi Akhoundzadeh, said the United Nations peacekeeping operations were effective in controlling crisis, supporting human rights and creating peace and stability in the world. He was speaking as Tehran was hosting a peacekeeping training course.

Tehran also received a pledge of support from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in helping the country's drive to end Afghan poppy cultivation. FAO is currently working with the Iranian authorities on how to implement a tripartite agreement between FAO, Iran and Afghanistan to substitute the poppy crop that is leading to a huge growth in heroin exports.

On the domestic front Iran is bracing for the trial of Ebrahim Yazdi, head of the outlawed Iran Freedom Movement (IFM), who returned from the United States last month after spending 13 months there for cancer treatment. State radio said the Iranian judiciary has summoned Yazdi to appear before it soon, though he was not to be arrested before the proceedings.

IFM activities were tolerated in Iran until the round-up in March 2001, after which the party was officially banned. The party was founded in the 1960's by Mehdi Bazargan, head of the first provisional government in the Islamic republic following the 1979 revolution.

Many regional countries, including Iran and the Central Asian states, are accused of human rights abuses and persecution of political opponents.

Uzbek authorities have stepped up their campaign against dissident Muslim women in past weeks, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Wednesday. It said Uzbek police had detained at least eight women and their children in Tashkent, and at least nine in the Fergana Valley, for protesting the persecution of Muslim dissidents and demanding the release of their male relatives, jailed for alleged links to the Islamic opposition.

In neighbouring Kazakhstan, Heinrich Haupt, head of a European security body in Almaty, slammed the country for muzzling all critical media. "As a result of restrictive policies taken in the last few months almost all critical media have now been silenced," Haupt, head of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Almaty, said in a statement issued on Monday.

"The most disturbing aspect is that there seems to be a tendency to further tighten controls and restrictions," he said.

OSCE also criticised the attempt to control the media in neighbouring Turkmenistan. In a letter to Turkmenistan's Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov, the media freedom representative of OSCE, Freimut Duve, noted that the print-run of the Moscow-based newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda was confiscated because of an article describing the situation in the country.

The situation in Kyrgyzstan, was not much different in terms of political opponents, where Felix Kulov, an opposition leader, faces a trial on new charges of embezzlement. Prosecutors asked the court in the capital, Bishkek, to sentence Kulov - a former prime minister considered the strongest political challenger to President Askar Akayev - to 11 years in a high-security prison for embezzling millions of dollars while he was a regional governor and later mayor of Bishkek in the 1990's.

"I understand the political motivation," Kulov said, adding: "I am not a thief or a swindler."
Kulov was arrested in March 1999 after his involvement in opposition demonstrations. He was convicted of abuse of office, and is currently serving a seven-year prison term.

Meanwhile, living and health conditions in drought-hit western Uzbekistan are likely to improve through a water supply project for which the Asian Development Bank (ADB) approved a loan of US $38 million on Thursday.

The project complements a wide-ranging package of initiatives being prepared by the international aid agencies under the government's Aral Sea Drought Relief Programme. The ADB will help in supplying safe water to about 700,000 people, expanding the drinking-water coverage to up to 85 percent of rural households.

Apart from drought, the Aral Sea also faces a recently-discovered threat on Vozrozhdeniye Island, where the Soviets had reportedly stockpiled biological weapons, including anthrax.

Bek Tashmukhamedov, a professor of biology at the Uzbekistan Academy of Science in Tashkent, said that testing to determine how to clean up the site began in April. The site has 11 unmarked pits where, fearing an imminent Western inspection in 1988, the Soviets buried their stockpile of weapons-grade anthrax. US officials have said the project will include killing any anthrax virus in the burial pits and the soil, and then razing the entire bio-weapons lab complex.

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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