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    Turkmen political exiles may return after hard-line ruler's death

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    Turkmen opposition leaders forced into exile by President Saparmurat Niyazov are trying to secure Western guarantees for a safe return home following the authoritarian ruler's death, the head of Turkmenistan's Republican Party said Friday.

    MOSCOW, December 22 (RIA Novosti) - Turkmen opposition leaders forced into exile by President Saparmurat Niyazov are trying to secure Western guarantees for a safe return home following the authoritarian ruler's death, the head of Turkmenistan's Republican Party said Friday.

    Niyazov, who ruled the Central Asian country for 21 years, died of heart failure Thursday at the age of 66.

    Nurmuhammed Khanamov, who is also a former ambassador to Turkey, said: "We have already had a number of meetings with representatives of leading European countries and major international organizations, which could act as guarantors for our return to Turkmenistan and our renewed participation in the country's political life."

    Most of the exiled Turkmen politicians are former high-ranking government officials who were incriminated in Niyazov's alleged attempted murder in November 2002.

    The Norway-based leader of Turkmenistan's United Democratic Opposition said he and his counterparts would try to return to their country of origin before the New Year.

    "We must rise up to the occasion and return before the New Year," Avdy Kuliyev, a former foreign minister, said. He added it would be a race against time for opposition leaders seeking to challenge Niyazov's clan.

    "We have agreed among ourselves that we have no option other than to struggle for democracy in Turkmenistan. We should push for free and democratic elections in the country, not to fight for the presidency and the office of parliament speaker."

    Acting President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, widely tipped to become Turkmenistan's next head of state, said Friday the government should make every effort not to let the situation spiral out of control.

    Speaking at a joint session of the Cabinet and the National Security Council, he stressed "the need to strictly control all aspects of the country's life, especially food supplies for the population and the prices of staple goods, to prevent disruptions in the operation of agencies and facilities, and to take all necessary measures to maintain calm and stability in the country, as well as its people's unity."

    An established Russian political scientist said in comments to RIA Novosti that Turkmen opposition leaders could reshape their country's political future.

    Sergei Markov, Director of the Political Studies Institute, said: "The opposition has allies left behind in Turkmenistan. So when a fight between rival elite clans breaks out, the opposition will want to come back. Those groups that have already started to fight are hoping for their backing."

    Some of those willing to return may seek revenge, Markov said.

    "The danger of one possible scenario is that if a fight between [political] leaders turns into an open clan fight, various external forces may also try to swing the situation [in their favor] by throwing their weight behind a certain grouping," he said.

    Markov said Iran, Afghanistan, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and the United States are among the countries that may want to take advantage of Turkmenistan's current political vacuum to enhance their own clout in the oil-rich region.

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