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Last Updated: Friday, 21 May, 2004, 21:00 GMT 22:00 UK
Portrait puzzle for Turkmenistan
President Saparmurat Niyazov
Niyazov's image is everywhere in Turkmenistan
Workers in Turkmenistan have begun removing images of the Stalinist state's ruling President, Saparmurat Niyazov, without explanation.

Correspondents noted bewilderment among locals in the capital Ashgabat as portraits vanished from buildings along with at least one statue.

However, there is no indication Mr Niyazov's grip on power is slipping.

One Russian TV channel reported that the eccentric ruler had ordered a curb on his own personality cult.

We still know who our president is - I don't think anything's changed
Turkmen pensioner
It quoted the city hall as saying Mr Niyazov had issued an order to "clear the capital of his portraits" as part of a "campaign against his own personality cult".

An unnamed mayoral official who spoke to the French news agency AFP said that the portraits removed were to be replaced by "posters on political themes".

The president made no public comment on the order himself when he opened a new paper factory near Ashgabat on Friday.

One of the most startling sights on Friday was the dismantling of a bronze statue of the Father Of All Turkmen outside the interior ministry although other statues remained untouched.

Mr Niyazov, who has been in power since Soviet times and was declared president for life in 1999, has gained a reputation for eccentric behaviour while his rule dominates every aspect of life in the energy-rich state.

"We still know who our president is - I don't think anything's changed," one 70-year-old pensioner told AFP on Friday.

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