Turkmenistan shuts door to US volunteers: official
Ex-Soviet Turkmenistan has barred an incoming group of aid workers from the Peace Corps, a US government programme for aid volunteers, from entering the country, an agency official said Friday.
The Peace Corps, which has operated in Turkmenistan since 1993, was given no explanation for the last-minute decision to cancel the visas of 47 volunteers, acting country director Chris Leal told AFP by telephone from Ashgabat.
"They were scheduled to come in on September 30, and we received notice about 24 hours before they left Philadelphia that they would not have sites available for them when they arrived in Turkmenistan," Leal said.
"We had the letters of invitation approved, we had their visas in place. Everything was approved by the government. They were all set to come... So it was kind of a shock to us."
Turkmenistan is one of the world's most isolated states, but it is also home to rich gas reserves that are the subject of jockeying by Russia and the European Union.
Ashgabat had taken steps to reach out to the West in recent months, hosting EU delegations and allowing some foreign journalists into the country amid a row with Moscow over gas exports.
Roughly half of the US volunteers were health care professionals assigned to assist in rural areas of Turkmenistan, while the other half were tasked with teaching English in primary and secondary schools, Leal said.
Turkmenistan became deeply isolated under the nearly two-decade rule of dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in 2006.
The eccentric Niyazov forced schools to replace much of their curriculum with lessons from his rambling book of philosophy and religion, the Rukhnama, and closed all hospitals outside of the capital Ashgabat.
Current President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has eliminated some of the more bizarre signs of Niyazov's personality cult, but critics say the changes are merely cosmetic.
The Peace Corps currently has 70 volunteers in the desert nation and there is no indication from the government that their status will change, Leal said.