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    Turkmen opposition says acting president appointment illegal

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    The appointment of Turkmen Deputy Prime Minister Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov as the country's acting president violates the Constitution, the leader of an opposition party said Thursday.

    MOSCOW, December 21 (RIA Novosti) - The appointment of Turkmen Deputy Prime Minister Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov as the country's acting president violates the Constitution, the leader of an opposition party said Thursday.

    The president of the Central Asian republic of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, died early Thursday after 21 years of authoritarian rule. On December 26, the country's supreme representative body, the People's Council, will meet for an emergency session to set a date for a new presidential election.

    "Under the law, this matter must be decided at a Khalk Maslakhaty [People's Council] session on December 26. Pending a People's Council session, under the Constitution, only the speaker of the Mejlis [parliament] may become acting head of the republic," Nurmukhammed Khanamov said.

    He said the opposition will make an official statement on the issue later.

    He also said he believes the head of the presidential protection service, Akmurad Redzhekov, who has considerable influence in the country, is colluding with Berdymukhammedov.

    "They will strive to preserve the status quo," he said.

    Moscow, which has resisted radical changes of power in post-Soviet nations, said earlier it hopes power in Turkmenistan will be transferred in accordance with the law following the death of President Niyazov.

    "We hope for a legal transfer of power and that continuity will be preserved in our relations," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

    A Kremlin official said he hoped bilateral cooperation would further develop under a new leader. Russia buys and re-exports large volumes of cheap natural gas from the energy-rich country.

    The Turkmen government, the State Security Council and lawmakers said in a televised statement, "The people of Turkmenistan... will remain committed to the political course of Saparmurat Turkmenbashi."

    Soon after the news of the leader's death came in, opposition leaders, who have been living abroad to avoid prosecution following mass purges in the country, said they might fly back to the country in the coming days, and meet to discuss how to react to the situation.

    Khudaiberdy Orazov, a former deputy prime minister and chairman of the Vatan movement, said he had already spoken with other opposition leaders over the phone. Nurmukhammed Khanamov, leader of the Republican Party, called on opposition forces to unite in a bid "to prevent anarchy and confrontation in the country."

    Niyazov ruled the impoverished Central Asian republic with an iron fist and created a huge personality cult. He ordered golden statues of himself to be set up in the main streets and squares of the capital, Ashgabat, and in the middle of the desert, and used the country's natural gas wealth to fund his lavish lifestyle.

    Amnesty International has cited widespread human rights violations in Turkmenistan under Niyazov, including arbitrary detention, torture, and political repression. Human Rights Watch has called the ex-Soviet republic "one of the most repressive and closed countries in the world"

    The late leader's funeral will take place on the morning of Sunday, December 24, in the presidential palace. He will then be taken to a mausoleum, which has already been built in his home village, Kipchak.

    Following a decision by the Turkmen Security Council, December 28 will be a day of mourning.

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