Turkmenistan: Abadan Blast a Cover-Up for Illegal Arms Dealing?
Fergananews.com, an independent Central Asian news site, has published a number of photos of damaged buildings in Abadan, site of an explosion in Turkmenistan last Thursday, showing smokey holes where rockets have shot through. A former Abadan worker said that it was common for people to steal ammunition from the depot and sell it, lending credence to a theory being discussed in Central Asian forums now that the explosion could have been a cover-up for theft of arms sold on the black market, so the depletion of stocks would not be noticed.
In an interview with the Russian TV channel Rain, Ajdar Kurtov, an expert from the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, said that aging Soviet weapons depots have been timebombs all over the former Soviet Union, and some have already exploded, such as in Bashkortostan. With the temperatures at 104 and above in Turkmenistan this last week, fires ignite easily. On the other hand, with its enormous gas revenues, Turkmenistan has been able to modernize its armed forces and weaponry and has purchased new supplies in recent years, mainly from Russia.
Kurtov cautions that it has been extremely difficult to get information from the affected area. Riot police are now guarding the roads at checkpoints and only allowing in evacuees with identification. Not a single federal Russian newspaper has permanent correspondents in Ashgabat, a closed society, he says.
Mobile phone connection, recently severely compromised with the forced exit of Russia's MobileTeleSystems (MTS), is heavily controlled and appears to have been shut off in the area.
Kurtov says the government's official version of the story -- that stored fireworks ignited in the heat -- is plausible because the Turkmen leadership organizes numerous festivities with fireworks and is planning many gala events for October, the 20th anniversary of independence. Another hypothesis is that weapon stocks were deliberately set on fire to hide the fact that some had been removed and sold on the black market -- Abadan is only about 100 kilometers from the Afghan border.
He believes the figure of casualties provided by chrono-tm.org of 200 or more is exaggerated, because he perceives the site as belonging to the opposition. Yet chrono-tm.org stands by their collation of eyewitness reports from their own network of informal reporters, and describes itself as a human rights effort not allied with any opposition organization. The Turkmen opposition, mainly consisting of former officials and other intellectuals forced to leave Turkmenistan, is mainly found in Russia and a few European countries, is only loosely organized, and generally inactive.
Even when the Internet is working, only about 1.6 percent of the population can access it, says Kurtov.
As always during catastrophes and upheavals of this nature, people begin to debate whether the tragedy reveals the strength or weakness of social media, and Abadan is a place where citizens' journalism shines or exposes its limitations. Turkmenistan's fledgling social media presence has struggled even to keep various socializing and chat sites open (most have been closed in the last year). Some people who use Russian social media sites like mail.ru may survive for longer, but Russian proprietors of sites like vkontakte.ru have been known to instantly shut down fan groups and accounts when they get complaints from the region's autocrats.
The social network portal Turkmeniya.ru is running on the front page an icon of the famous Akhal-teke race horse with a black ribbon, and is offering condolences. The site has been slightly more open in covering the disaster, and photos uploaded by users of the accident, some copied from Russian media sites, have remained posted in the last two days.
Myakhriban Dursunbayev, a correspondent for News-asia.ru interviewed two people from Abadan today who confirmed massive destruction. Mikhail Nishukov said he saw people panic in the first day, and saw pieces of dead bodies, but said that he believed the ammunition was being carted out of the town and exploded in the mountains.
Alina Kirsanova said that people had been evacuated from Geok-Tepe, site of another ammunition depot. She questioned the Turkmen government's claims that the explosion only involved fireworks being stored for holidays. "But many had hoped that this time, they would tell the truth. That they would announce a day of mourning, allocate assistance and pensions, and restore the city. Apparently our hopes were in vain," she said. Both news-asia.ru and chrono-tm.org have published pictures of unexploded rockets.