Rare clashes in authoritarian Turkmenistan



ALMATY, Kazakhstan // Heavy gun battles between a radical group and security forces erupted overnight in the capital of Turkmenistan - a rare instance of violence in the authoritarian nation, media reports and a Western diplomat said yesterday. The diplomat said there were unconfirmed reports that at least 20 members of the security forces were killed and some of the suspected fighters had been rounded up.

He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media. Witnesses in the capital, Ashgabat, said there was heavy, prolonged gunfire and some casualties in the fighting, though they did not know how many. They said they saw armored personnel carriers patrolling the area and streets there were closed for much of the day. Several reports said the clash was between a radical group and security forces. Information is strictly controlled in Turkmenistan, a former Soviet republic with large gas and oil reserves.

State media did not report on the incident. The small country borders Iran and Afghanistan and its population is overwhelmingly Muslim. Religious violence is virtually unheard of in the country, as the government has vigorously stamped out all opposition. The US embassy in Turkmenistan warned Americans to stay away from the northern districts of city where the clashes took place. * AP

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