Turkmen police guard blast site, deny any deaths

Associated Press

ABADAN, Turkmenistan (AP) — Police guarded a smoldering blast site near the capital of Turkmenistan on Friday, a day after a series of mysterious blasts severely damaged hundreds of houses in the town.

An Associated Press reporter who came within 1 kilometer (half a mile) of the blast site saw still-burning debris littering the streets and several heavily damaged homes after explosions Thursday afternoon shook Abadan, a town 12 miles (20 kilometers) from the capital, Ashgabat.

Authorities in this deeply secretive Central Asian nation say the explosion was caused by fireworks in a warehouse and there were no casualties.

Online satellite images, however, show what appears to be a munitions dump at the location, with residential buildings as close as 600 meters (yards) away. Exiled Turkmen activists said that was the source of the blast and that many people have been killed.

The government of this isolated former Soviet nation on Iran's northern border is notoriously secretive and reports are difficult to verify.

Some residents trickled back to their homes Friday. All the windows in some four-story buildings one kilometer away from the epicenter of the explosion were smashed, a region that included several apartment blocks and a school.

Police stopped members of the public from getting any closer.

"When the explosions began, we all began running away," one Abadan resident said, as he knocked shattered glass out of the door to his shop. "I don't know if there were any victims, we were all escaping."

He refused to give his name for fear of being targeted by authorities.

While officials continued to insist Friday that nobody had been killed, Khronika Turkmenistana, a website run by Vienna-based Turkmen dissident Farid Tukhbatullin, cited a witness as saying he saw four men's bodies covered with sheets. The site also reported that numerous shells could be seen flying off into nearby mountains.

Tukhbatullin is considered a reliable source of information on developments inside Turkmenistan.

Neweurasia, a citizen journalism website focusing on Central Asia, reported that one Abadan resident wrote online that his house had been leveled to the ground, and he saw a child with their hands and feet blown off. There was no way to independently verify the report.

In a signal of its discomfort with international coverage of the day's events, Turkmenistan's Foreign Ministry lashed out in a statement late Friday at what it described as inaccurate reporting of events by Russian media outlets. Many Turkmens are able to watch Russian television news via satellite.

"The Turkmen government has expressed its firm objections through diplomatic channels and demanded immediate measures to halt this information assault on Turkmenistan," the ministry said in a statement.

Parliament speaker Akzha Nurberdiyeva traveled to Abadan on Friday afternoon to urge residents to remain calm.

"You, the people of Abadan, are a very brave and hardy people," she told a crowd, promising that all those whose houses had been badly damaged would be given replacement homes.

Nurberdiyeva said that adults who had evacuated the day before would be allowed to return to Abadan, but it was too early to allow children back in.

Traffic police closed the road from Ashgabat to Abadan on Friday, but reopened it later in the day.

Abadan is the site of a gas-fired power plant that acts as a major electricity supplier to Ashgabat. Power supplies to the capital failed sporadically Thursday evening.

Arms depot explosions are not unusual across the former Soviet Union.

In July 2008, a fire spread to a Soviet-era military base in a town in neighboring Uzbekistan, setting off a chain of blasts that lasted for hours.

Turkmen authorities have tacitly acknowledged that their military equipment is wanting, and this week President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov told military officials that work was needed to improve the army's technical readiness, including enlisting more professional soldiers.

In a Cabinet meeting Friday, Berdymukhamedov dismissed a number of senior officials, including the head of the Central Bank, the Agriculture Minister, and the editor of the main Turkmen-language state newspaper. No officials running the security ministries appear to have been affected by the surprise reshuffle.

Turkmenistan is an energy-rich country of around 5 million people that has been ruled by Berdymukhamedov since the death of the eccentric President Saparmurat Niyazov in 2006. Berdymukhamedov vowed to gradually open up the country, but Turkmenistan still remains largely closed to outsiders and authorities maintain a tight control over information.

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Associated Press writer Peter Leonard in Almaty, Kazakhstan, contributed to this report.

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