Weekly news wrap

Traffic along the Khorag-Dushanbe highway in Tajikistan resumed on Sunday. The 600-kilometre road had been paralysed by heavy snowfalls after a landslide days earlier tore down the mountains of the former Soviet republic, an official with the Central Asian state's emergencies ministry said. Up to six people were reportedly killed in the incident, local media reported.

Moscow reportedly supports the idea of a gradual transfer of policing the Tajik border with Afghanistan to Tajik border guards. While Tajikistan is unable to guard the whole border with Afghanistan, Lt General Aleksandr Manilov reportedly said on Sunday: "Russian forces will gradually hand over their sectors to the Tajik border guards." The mountainous state shares some 1,200 km of common border with Afghanistan, which has proven a popular crossing point for heroin bound for Europe.

Staying in Tajikistan, China's State Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (SAQSIQ) refused imports of cloven-hoofed animals from Tajikistan on Thursday, following reports of three cases of food-and-mouth disease in the country.

The SAQSIQ made the announcement in a joint circular with the Ministry of Agriculture on Thursday, saying the move was to protect animals in China from foot-and-mouth disease. All cloven-hoofed animals that have been exported to China from Tajikistan will be returned or destroyed, the SAQSIQ source said.

A high-ranking official in Tajikistan's Baptist church was reportedly shot and killed on Wednesday. Sergei Besarab, chief of the Church of Evangelical Christians-Baptists mission in Tajikistan's northern town of Isfar was praying when the unidentified assailant burst into the mission's courtyard and opened fire late on Monday, the Church said in a statement.

In neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, Forum 18, a Norway-based news agency covering religious issues in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, reported positive developments on religious freedom in that country this week. This follows the recent visit of Igor Rotar, the Central Asian correspondent for the agency, to the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, as well as the south of the country. During the visit, he found that both registered and unregistered religious communities appear to enjoy relative freedom to practice their beliefs. Religious freedom remains a concern of rights groups in all five Central Asian countries, following the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Meanwhile, condolences continued to come in this week following the death of UN Resident Coordinator and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Resident Representative in Uzbekistan, Richard Conroy, who died in a plane crash in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, on Tuesday. Also among the passengers was Richard Penner, country manager for the Christian relief organisation, World Concern, in Uzbekistan. Penner was a Canadian citizen, according to the Uzbek foreign ministry.

On the issue of human rights, Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Wednesday reaffirmed its call on the Uzbek government to release independent journalist and human rights defender, Ruslan Sharipov, as well as to repeal the law against consensual, adult homosexual conduct, which the authorities used to imprison him.

Last year, Tashkent released four other imprisoned human rights defenders. In December, however, the government dashed hopes that it would release Sharipov under a presidential amnesty, despite international criticism to do so. Wednesday marked the five-month anniversary of the young activist's conviction.

While in Kazakhstan, journalist and human rights activist Sergei Duvanov has been released on probation after being imprisoned since October 2002. Duvanov was freed on Thursday following a court ruling last month allowing him to return to his home in Almaty and resume his job at the International Bureau of Human Rights.

The international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders welcomed this easing of the journalist's sentence but added his guilt had never been proved and that the verdict, against someone who constantly suffered harassment, had been political. Duvanov, editor of the newsletter Human Rights in Kazakhstan and the World, published by the International Bureau, was serving a three-and-a-half year sentence for rape of a minor.

And on the issue of health, officials in Central Asia's largest state have raised concern this week over reports of some 27 cases of hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome in western Kazakhstan. According to Sergey Shcherbina, the deputy chief of sanitation in the regional public health and epidemiology office, a few more cases of the disease were expected because its incubation period lasts for up to 30 days, the local Ekspress-K newspaper said.

On the issue of AIDS, the Kazakh Statistics Agency registered 64 cases of AIDS in January-November of 2003. A total of 23 cases were registered over the same period in 2002. Some 692 cases of HIV were registered in Kazakhstan in January-November of 2003; a 2.5 percent jump over one year earlier, local media reports contend. While officially 3,886 HIV-positive cases have been registered since the disease was first detected in 1987, many health experts believe the number to be 10 times higher.