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Last Updated: Friday, 22 December 2006, 19:52 GMT
Turkmen leader pledges stability
Flags fly at half-mast in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat on 22 December 2006
Flags are flying at half-mast in the capital Ashgabat
Turkmenistan's interim leader says the country will remain "stable and calm" following the unexpected death of its authoritarian president.

Saparmurat Niyazov, who ruled for 21 years, died on Wednesday from a heart attack. He will be buried on Sunday.

He leaves no designated successor and analysts are warning of a power struggle to fill the vacuum.

The acting leader, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, told state TV the government was "firmly in control".

Mr Niyazov, who was made president-for-life in 1999, exercised almost total control over the resource-rich country through a cult of personality.

In the capital, Ashgabat, shops were closed and flags flown at half-mast. Newspapers were entirely devoted to his death.

A period of national mourning will continue until 30 December and security has been stepped up in the capital.

Acting leader

Under the constitution, the Parliament chairman Ovezgeldy Atayev should have become the interim leader, but Mr Berdymukhamedov, the deputy prime minister, was named instead.

He told state television that Mr Atayev had been sacked after a criminal probe was opened into his activities on Thursday.

Earlier, a newly-formed State Security Council led by Mr Berdymukhamedov met the cabinet to discuss "important issues of state".

Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov

Mr Berdymukhamedov urged officials to ensure a stable supply of food, state news agency Turkmen Khabarly reported.

The People's Council, the country's highest representative body, is to hold an emergency meeting on 26 December to decide on Mr Niyazov's succession. Mr Berdymukhamedov said the date for the next presidential elections would be set then.

"National presidential elections will be held on a democratic basis that has been laid by the great leader," he said.

In December 2004 parliamentary elections were held in which all of the candidates were Mr Niyazov's supporters. No foreign observers were permitted.

'Maintain continuity'

Turkmenistan's Central Asian neighbours as well as the EU, the US and Russia have all expressed the need to maintain stability.

The energy-rich nation is a neighbour of Iran and Afghanistan and a crucial supplier of gas to Europe. Russian energy giant Gazprom is the major buyer of Turkmen gas and some analysts forecast a struggle for influence in the country.

"We believe that the maintenance of continuity and strengthening of our partnership is in the long-term interests of the people of Russia and Turkmenistan," Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a message.

Gazprom's deputy chairman Alexander Medvedev said he did not believe Mr Niyazov's death would disrupt supplies.

"We have first-class international contracts ruled by international norms," he said. "There are no reasons to change the conditions, whoever becomes president of Turkmenistan."

In the US, President George W Bush also expressed his condolences.

"We look forward to continuing to expand our relations with Turkmenistan, to a bright future for that country and to a government that provides justice and opportunity for its people," he said.

A number of leaders from around the world are expected at Mr Niyazov's funeral on Sunday.

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