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Weekly news wrap

In Central Asia this week, the main health issue continued to be fear of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) spreading into the region from neighbouring China. Kyrgyzstan said on Tuesday it had shut its border with China in an effort to curb the spread of the deadly flu-like virus. The 860-km mountainous border was sealed on Monday, the Kyrgyz government said in a statement.

It said only cargo would be allowed to cross the border. All tourist travel and transport links to China were also suspended. The government said it had agreed with the Chinese side that citizens of the two countries would be given 10 days to return to their respective homes. Kyrgyzstan had earlier stepped up preventive controls at its borders and begun disinfecting train carriages and planes travelling to and from China.

Kyrgyzstan's neighbour, Kazakhstan, closed its 1,500-km border with China last week.

As part of preventive measures against the spread of the atypical pneumonia, Uzbekistan has temporarily suspended flights to China, Malaysia and Thailand.

Meanwhile, Tajikistan had other health concerns. Local media reported a measles outbreak affecting around 1,000 people in the northern Soghd Region this week. The disease is prevalent in Bobojon Ghafurov and Isfara districts, and in Khujand city. Mainly children aged between seven and 10, and also between 16 and 17, have contracted the disease.

The outbreak is being attributed to the fact that during Soviet times children had compulsory vaccinations at the age of one and later at six and seven, but such immunisation was impossible between 1992 and 1999 due to a shortage of vaccines. Vaccination of the population has now been deemed necessary in all areas of northern Tajikistan.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev on Tuesday pardoned a former energy minister and opposition leader who had been jailed for six years in a case seen by critics as politically motivated, AP reported, quoting a statement from Nazarbayev's office. Mukhtar Ablyazov, 39, "is released in accordance with a decree from serving further imprisonment", the statement said.

Ablayazov was convicted last July by this ex-Soviet country's supreme court for abuse of power and illegal business activity, and ordered to pay US $3.6 million to the national electricity company KEGOC. He was accused of illegally wiping off the debts of the Kostanaiasbest company, causing losses to KEGOC, which he once headed.

The conviction was strongly criticised at the time by the US State Department spokesman, Richard Boucher, who said that it appeared "to be part of the campaign to selectively target political opponents". During his trial, Ablyazov insisted that the charges were designed to silence him after he helped found the opposition Democratic Choice movement in late 2001.

Gunmen attacked two police stations in southern Kyrgyzstan on Thursday, making off with more than 25 guns and a couple of cars before most of the weapons were recovered in a later pursuit of the suspects, officials said. About 10 attackers assaulted the city and regional police department in Jalalabad early Thursday, beating up officers and stealing Kalashnikov assault rifles and Makarov pistols, the interior ministry said. Four of the alleged assailants were later arrested, the ministry said. They fired on police before surrendering.

The attack followed an announcement by Kyrgyz officials earlier this week that they had detained six members of an unspecified terrorist group in connection with two deadly explosions in the country, which is hosting US-led anti-terrorist troops. The six were detained following last week's explosion at a petrol station in the southern Osh Region, which killed one person. The US State Department warned last week of increasing activity in Central Asia by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a militant radical group with links to Al-Qaeda.

On the economic front, Tajik and Russian natural gas company officials on Thursday signed a 25-year agreement on cooperation in prospecting for and developing gas fields in Tajikistan. "We agreed that the work will proceed quickly, and by the end of June a contract will be signed on seismological work in the Rengan and Sargazon gas fields," Aleksey Miller, the head of Russia's state-controlled Gazprom gas company, told reporters.

Rengan, 20 km southwest of the capital, Dushanbe, has an estimated 30 billion cubic metres of gas, said Tajik Energy Minister Abdullo Yerov. Sargazon is located about 150 km southeast of Dushanbe. In all, Tajikistan was believed to have more than 1 trillion cubic metres of natural gas reserves, Miller said. However, its proven gas reserves are small. The agreement with Gazprom should make Tajikistan less dependent on Uzbekistan, which supplies gas to northern Tajikistan.

Representatives of the five countries surrounding the Caspian Sea reported some progress towards a pact to define the sea’s legal status this week. The latest round of Caspian Sea talks took place between Monday and Wednesday in the Kazakh commercial capital, Almaty, involving officials from Azerbaijan, Iran, the host country, Turkmenistan and Russia. Kazakhstan’s first deputy foreign minister, Kairat Abuseitov, said on Wednesday that negotiators had agreed on about 40 percent of a comprehensive Caspian pact, mainly covering environmental issues and implementation technicalities.

The main stumbling block remains the division of the Caspian’s surface and seabed. Iran has insisted that the sea be divided into equal 20 percent shares, while Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Russia support a "median-line" principle that would leave the five countries with differing shares. Under the Azeri-Kazakh-Russian proposal, Iran would receive only a 13 percent share of the Caspian. Turkmenistan has staked out an independent and somewhat unpredictable position on the negotiations.

And finally, a Dutch flower producer has named a new strain of dahlia after Turkmen President Saparmyrat Niyazov, dubbed a "little Saddam" by his critics, the Turkmenistan's main newspaper reported on Thursday. The "deep-red mother-of-pearl-flecked blooms" have been named "President Turkmenbashi" by the Dutch firm Royal Sluis, a subsidiary of the US company Seminis, out of respect for Niyazov's "great contribution to the stability of the Asian region and the whole world", the Neitralnyi Turkmenistan daily said.

With an eight-year record of supplying vegetable seeds to Turkmenistan, Royal Sluis was about to make a "wonderful addition to Turkmenistan's green capital" as the dahlias would soon line the streets of Ashgabat, the newspaper 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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