Leaders of Ex Soviet Central Asia Meet

ASHGABAT (Reuters)–The presidents of five former Soviet republics in Central Asia held impromptu talks in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat on Monday on improving security and economic cooperation in their energy-rich region.

The meeting–held at short notice amid much secrecy–brought together Turkmen’stan’s leader Saparmurat Niyazov–Kazahkstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev–Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov–Kyrgyzstan’s Askar Akayev and Tajikistan’s Imomali Rakhmonov.

Turkmen officials said the five presidents met for nearly three hours and then Turkmen’stan’s Niyazov and Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev held separate discussions on dividing up the resource-rich waters of the Caspian Sea.

Plans to develop the sea’s oil and gas reserves have been hampered by disagreemen’s between its adjacent states–which include Russia–Iran and Azerbaijan–over the sharing of its spoils.

Turkmen officials gave no further details about Monday’s talks but said a news conference would be held on Tuesday after the presidents had signed a joint statement.

The embassies of the four states in Ashgabat told Reuters they themselves had only learned of the surprise two-day summit on Sunday and were unable to comment on its agenda.

Turkmen’stan’s state-run Turkmen-Press news agency said the talks would help strengthen regional integration.

"The high-level meeting in Ashgabat will be a new step in the development of good neighborliness," it said.

"The presidents of the four friendly states intend to congratulate Turkmen’stan’s leader on our country’s great success in developing export outlets for Turkmen gas," it said.

Last week Iran’s President Mohammad Khatami paid a one-day visit to Turkmen’stan for the official opening of a gas pipeline linking the two countries.

Shortly before that Turkish Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz also visited Ashgabat. Turkey–Iran and Turkmen’stan gave the go-ahead for a feasibility study on a pipeline that would carry Turkmen gas across Iran to Turkey.

At a previous summit meeting in Ashgabat last May regional security was a major item on the presidents’ agenda.

The former Soviet republics–alarmed by the rise of the radical Taleban movement in nearby Afghanistan–are anxious to stem Islamic fundamentalism on their own territory.

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