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Three people died in a powerful earthquake that rocked southern Kazakhstan early on Friday, the Central Asian state's emergencies agency said. "According to the information we have at this moment, three people died. A woman with fractured legs was hospitalised," the agency's duty officer told Reuters. The epicentre of the tremor, which measured up to 6.5 on the Richter scale, was in a steppe area some 300 km west of Kazakhstan's commercial capital and largest city, Almaty, the agency said. Only two houses were destroyed near the epicentre, where there are three villages. But the duty officer added: "Practically all the mud-brick houses there were seriously damaged." He said around 24,000 people lived in the quake-affected area. In Almaty itself, the quake was measured at about 3.5 on the Richter scale, but no damage was reported in the city. The tremor was also felt in Bishkek, the capital of neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, but no casualties were reported there. The World Bank will offer US $171 million in aid to Kyrgyzstan over the next four years, it was reported on Monday, mainly aimed at helping the government's programme to reduce widespread poverty. "Despite a relatively strong economic performance and pro-poor growth, with poorer people increasing their incomes faster than average, huge challenges remain for the country," the World Bank said in a statement. "Investment has been limited, and infrastructure and social service systems have been slowly deteriorating since independence." Most of the money would be offered to this former Soviet republic as grants, the bank said. The new assistance strategy "reflects a maturing of the World Bank's relations with the Kyrgyz Republic, with a stronger upfront effort on helping the government to design its own development actions, and then providing funding and technical support to make these activities happen," Dennis de Tray, the World Bank country director for Kyrgyzstan, said in the statement. Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Tuesday said a 38-year-old man who died in the custody of the Uzbek security service appeared to have been tortured and that his body was returned to his family covered with unexplained bruises and wounds. Uzbekistan frequently comes under criticism for its human rights record and widespread allegations of torture. Earlier this month, the controversial meeting of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, focused heavily on the issue. A UN envoy last year found evidence of "systematic" torture in Uzbekistan, but President Islam Karimov failed to issue a condemnation of torture at the EBRD meeting as international representatives said he had promised to do. Matilda Bogner, the head of HRW in Uzbekistan, told a news conference that the death of Arif Eshonov, 38, was the first death this year the group had confirmed as being the result of torture in custody. She expressed alarm that it had come so soon after the EBRD meeting, and suggested that the government had directed that such deaths be prevented before the meeting in order not to give support to human rights groups which had strongly criticised plans for the event being held in Uzbekistan. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) envoy for Central Asia had called on the Kyrgyz government to set an example for the region and build dialogue with civil society and the opposition, the OSCE said on Wednesday. Former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, the OSCE chairman's personal envoy to the region, told Kyrgyz officials that they should strive for a peaceful transition of power in the country's next elections and "turn Kyrgyzstan into an example of good governance for the whole region", the OSCE said in a statement. The next presidential elections in the country will be in 2005, and President Askar Akayev has previously promised that he will not seek another term or try to place a successor in office. If that occurs, it would mark one of the first democratic transitions of power in a region ruled almost entirely by leaders who have held on to authority since the 1991 Soviet collapse. During a three-day visit that ended Wednesday, Ahtisaari met Akayev and other senior officials, as well as ambassadors of OSCE states. At a meeting with Kyrgyz humanitarian organisations and political parties, which complained about increasing pressure by courts on independent newspapers, Ahtisaari responded that "there are universal values which must not be sacrificed", according to the OSCE. Information from Tajikistan suggests that 70 people have been the victims of landmines in the republic over the past three years. Fifty of them were killed, a high-ranking Tajik border service official told Interfax on Tuesday. Since 2001, 44 Tajik citizens were the victims of landmines planted by Uzbek border guards. Twenty-three were killed and 21 others suffered serious injuries, the chief of the Tajik Border (Protection) Committee, Nuralisho Nazarov, said. Uzbekistan lined its border with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan with mines in order to prevent the entry of members of the extremist Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan into its territory. Mining of the Tajik/Uzbek border has been a source of ongoing bilateral tension. The Tajik defence ministry's press service reported that from 1994 to January 2003, more than 10,000 mines had been defused. The Tajik military believes that about 15,000 mines laid in Tajikistan during the 1992-1997 civil war still pose a threat to civilians. NGOs in Kazakhstan this week dismissed as "undemocratic" a draft law aimed at formalising and regularising their work. At a news conference in the capital, Astana, representatives said the new law would impose restrictions on foreign NGOs operating in the country and this would be unhealthy and prevent donor money from entering Kazakhstan. They complained that their organisations had been mostly left out of the work on the draft laws, and that their projects, which "are extremely important", had not been brought up for public discussion.

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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