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An earthquake measuring five on the Richter scale hit eastern Kazakhstan on Saturday. According to the Central Seismic Station in Almaty, the Kazakh commercial capital, its epicentre was in the Zaysan District's Qarabulaq village, close to the Kazakh-Chinese border, where the magnitude reached seven on the Richter scale. No casualties or damage has been reported. The number of prisoners in Kazakhstan has decreased thanks to amendments to the country's criminal law to mitigate penalties for a number of crimes. "There were over 65,000 people imprisoned in the country at the beginning of 2002, and since the new law came into force their number has gone down to 52,000," Mukhamedzhan Pakerdinov, the deputy of the legal department of the Kazakh presidential administration, said on Monday. Thus, in terms of prisoners per 100,000 of the population, Kazakhstan has moved from third to sixth place in the world. Kazakhstan's population is close to 15 million. US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage would visit Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan from Wednesday through 8 October this week to discuss their cooperation in the US-led war on terrorism, the State Department said on Tuesday. In Kazakhstan, Armitage was to attend the opening of a new embassy branch office in the capital, Astana, US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. The World Bank will lend Tajikistan US $80 million over the next three years to help combat rampant poverty. "Some 34 percent of this sum will be handed out in grants," Shigeo Katsu, the bank's regional vice-president on Europe and Central Asia, told reporters on Monday. Over 80 percent of Tajikistan's 6.3 million population lives below the poverty level. The EU was interested in strengthening its economic and political ties with Tajikistan, members of the first EU delegation to visit the country said on Monday as they arrived in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe. "The strengthening of cooperation between the EU and Tajikistan is one the main goals of our trip," Antonio Di Pietro, a European Parliament member from Italy, told reporters. The EU delegation met Tajik Prime Minister Akil Akilov, as well as other government and law enforcement officials. Tuberculosis (TB) was posing a serious threat to many villages in Tajikistan's southern Vose district, Iranian radio reported on Wednesday. It said about 300 people had died from TB in the village of Elot in Vose District over the past three years. "Inhabitants of Naychi, Kaftarkhana, Uchqun and many other villages have been suffering from TB for about 50 years," it added. It was reported on Thursday that Tajik President Emomali Rahmonov had proposed setting up a global alliance to combat drug trafficking. Rahmonov said the illicit drug trade had become the main source of financing for international terrorism. According to some sources, Tajikistan occupies fourth place in the world and the first place in the CIS in terms of number of drug seizures. In Turkmenistan, President Saparmurat Niyazov on Tuesday ordered the national security service to step up the fight against terrorism, the move will further tighten security in this most reclusive of the Central Asian nations. "You must conduct an uncompromising fight against any manifestations of terrorism that target the foundations of Turkmenistan's statehood," he said. Niyazov has taken a number of steps to tighten control in the gas-rich country since an alleged assassination attempt on him last November. Turkmen state media reported on Tuesday that Niyazov had sacked his defence minister, Rejepbai Arazov, four months into the job, for being too "quiet" and not enjoying his work. Arazov, the first civilian to head the ministry, was relieved of his post as it was "not his profession and he is a quiet man who didn't enjoyed good health", Turkmen media quoted Niyazov as saying. In neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, a leading Kyrgyz civil rights group, which had repeatedly been denied registration, said on Tuesday that its members were coming under increased pressure from government officials. For the past week, members of a Coalition For Democracy and Civil Society had been visited by law enforcement authorities or summoned to their offices to confirm their membership and say why they joined, the coalition said in a statement. On Wednesday, a top Kyrgyz legislator quashed growing speculation that Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev would try to stay in office past constitutional limits after a business group urged him to run again. "An article in the constitution says nobody may be elected president for more than two terms," Altai Borubaev, Speaker of upper chamber of the Kyrgyz parliament, said. Akayev has been in office since 1990, before the Soviet collapse, and was elected three times in polls that have been internationally criticised as neither free nor fair. A top European Union official affirmed on Wednesday the EU's commitment to pushing for regional cooperation in Central Asia. "We are engaged in a dialogue with all governments in Central Asia to convince them that they have to cooperate if they want to be in a position to solve a number of important issues," said Hugues Mingarelli, the EC director for Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Central Asia and Mongolia. Going west to Uzbekistan, hundreds of angry vendors gathered Wednesday at the biggest bazaar in the capital, Tashkent, but a heavy police presence prevented them from openly protesting against a government order banning them from trading. The order, issued in July and becoming effective on Wednesday, bans the sale of anything but food in markets. Non-food products can now only be sold in special markets and shops with cash registers. However, vendors reportedly said it was a blow to the centuries-old Central Asian tradition of bazaar trade and would leave many in the impoverished ex-Soviet republic without a source of income.

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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