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The week opened with a warning shot from Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei instructing foreign powers not to meddle in the contentious feud over the Caspian Sea's vast energy riches.

"Some international big powers are opposed to the resolving of regional disputes including those on the Caspian Sea," Khamenei said, according to IRNA.

Iran is holding out against the four former Soviet states on how the oil- and gas-rich waters should be divided up. Tensions rose in the Caspian Sea row a week ago when Iran slammed Russia and Kazakhstan for signing bilateral deals on the delineation of their borders in the Caspian without Iran's approval. Tehran backed its threat up by putting its Caspian-based naval forces on high alert.

A major environmental story broke this week with news on Tuesday that heavy rains in the last few weeks have led to flooding in Central Asia’s largest uranium processing plant. The result could be a major ecological disaster for Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

At the head of the Fergana Valley - the breadbasket of Central Asia - elevated slightly above the banks of the swift-flowing Maili Suu River, stands an outdated Soviet-era uranium processing plant whose estimated 2 million cubic meters of radioactive waste represent a potential environmental
catastrophe for the region unless it is addressed.

In a related development, it was announced this week that hazardous material used in the manufacture of biological weapons would be buried in 11 shafts on Vozrozhdeniye Island in the Aral Sea on the Kazakh-Uzbek border. The island was a major biological weapons testing ground in Soviet times. The work is going ahead under the supervision of US specialists.

Central Asian food security was in the news again on Tuesday following a UN Food and Agriculture Organisation report on global cereal production for 2002. The Rome-based agency predicted severe shortages in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and suggests emergency food aid may be required in the two republics before year's end.

On the health front, new HIV/AIDS statistics from Kazakhstan suggest the number of people living with the disease in the country is growing with reported cases touching 3,000. But the Interfax report said specialists estimate that the real number of people infected could reach as much as 10 times the official figures. The most vulnerable category of the population in terms of risks of contracting HIV is young people aged 15-29, Kazakh health authorities said.

Human-rights groups on Wednesday criticised the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) for planning to hold its annual meeting next year in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent. The groups, including Human Rights Watch (HRW), said the meeting - planned for May 2003 - will bring prestige to the Uzbek government and allow it to hide its poor record on human rights. Around 50 NGOs called on the bank to press the Uzbek government for meaningful improvements in human rights in the 12 months before the meeting.

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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