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Weekly news wrap

This week in Central Asia, Uzbek President Islam Karimov warned neighbouring nations against underestimating the threat posed to the region by extremist Islamic groups. According to the Associated Press (AP), he said on Tuesday that the recent increased activity of the radical Hizb-ut-Tahrir (Liberation Party) in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan was the result of the underestimation by those governments of the danger of religious fundamentalism, warning that this might have "tragic consequences".

On Thursday, Karimov, long criticised by rights groups for his tight authoritarian grip on the nation, explained in an interview moves to reduce his own authority as a means of bringing the Uzbek administrative system into line with world standards.

Also on Thursday, he said the government expected to reach an agreement with the IMF on support for the Uzbek currency soon after talks in early May. According to a Reuters report, the IMF withdrew from the impoverished, largely agrarian nation of 25 million in March 2001, in protest against Tashkent's reluctance to accelerate slow-moving economic reforms and its unwillingness to liberalise its foreign exchange market. In late 1996, the IMF froze its US $180 million stand-by programme after the Uzbek government started printing money and imposing rigid restrictions on convertibility following a poor harvest of cotton - the country's main export earner - the report said.

Also in Uzbekistan, NATO announced that would carry out a disaster relief exercise in the Ferghana Valley at the end of this month. A total of 20 countries, including both NATO and Peace for Partnership members, would participate in the operation, a NATO press release said on Thursday. The exercise is based the scenario of a devastating earthquake and landslides striking the Ferghana Valley region in Uzbekistan and causing a substantial number of casualty and serious damage. The exercise, entitled Ferghana 2003, is scheduled to begin on 28 April.

In Kazakhstan, an organisation representing opposition journalists said it would boycott an international media forum that Almaty was hosting on Thursday, alleging that the organisers would not let it raise sensitive issues, AP reported. The orhanisation, Journalists in Trouble, said the organisers of the Eurasian Media Forum had turned down its request to accredit 10 prominent opposition journalists and media rights campaigners as delegates with the right to make a presentation.

Kazakhstan's independent media have reportedly been under increased pressure recently, with journalists suffering beatings, intimidation and politically motivated legal suits.

During the forum, EC President Romano Prodi reportedly urged delegates to hold an honest dialogue, noting that democracy was in danger whenever the media freedom was curtailed. Threats, bans or discrimination against certain groups in society, media monopoly or even self-censorship of journalists on considerations of distorted patriotism harmed the media and society, he added.

Staying in Kazakhstan, the Interfax-Kazakhstan news agency reported that an oil spillage stretching three kilometres along the shore of the Caspian Sea had been discovered near Aktau - the administrative centre of the western Mangistauskaya region. Local police officers discovered the spillage at a children's recreational facility about 20 km away from Aktau on Monday, and authorities are investigating.

In Kyrgyzstan, the country's lower house of parliament on Thursday reportedly approved an amnesty for 786 convicts in the Central Asian nation's overcrowded and disease-ridden prisons. While not yet approved by the upper house of parliament or signed into law by President Askar Akayev, the amnesty is particularly aimed at older women, disabled persons, first-time offenders and war veterans. Citing recent figures published by British government researchers, Reuters said with 18,000 prisoners out of a total population of five million, Kyrgyzstan's imprisonment rate puts it among the top 20 countries in the world.

Turkmenistan on Wednesday demanded that Sweden hand over two opposition leaders who Ashgabat claims were involved in an alleged plot to assassinate Turkmen President Saparmyrat Niyazov last November. According to the AP, Ashgabat wants Stockholm to extradite former First Deputy Agriculture Minister Saparmyrat Yklymov and a political scientist, Khalmurad Yesenov, both of whom the Turkmen authorities say were involved in the alleged plot.

The request comes less than a week after a UN resolution criticising Turkmenistan's human rights record was adopted. The reclusive state has a poor rights record, and watchdog groups have reported a mounting crackdown ever since the alleged assassination attempt.

Meanwhile, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have reportedly suspended gas supplies to Tajikistan. According to an Iranian radio report on Monday, Uzbekistan has in the past used natural gas as a means of bringing political pressure to bear on the Tajik leadership, with supplies only being resumed following intervention by senior government officials.

This is the third time in the last three months that gas deliveries to Tajikistan have been halted without specific reason. On the last two occasions, suspension was connected with an accident on the gas pipeline or non-payment for consumption. On the present occasion, however, Tajikistan was said to have no debt to the Uztrangaz, the Uzbek gas transport enterprise. The suspension had effectively paralysed the operations of some enterprises, especially public transport in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, the report said.

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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