President of Turkmenistan dies at 66

Turkmen president Saparmurat Niyazov has died, Turkmen state television reported today.

The Turkmenistan state television was showing Niyazov's portrait in a black frame and a presenter was reading his merits.

The 66-year-old Turkmen leader, who has ruled the energy-rich nation since 1985 when it was a Soviet republic, has created an elaborate personality cult, renaming months and days in the calendar after himself and his family, and ordering statues of him to be erected throughout the desert nation.

In 1997, Niyazov underwent major heart surgery in a German clinic and last month for the first time acknowledged publicly that he suffered from heart disease.

In a terse statement, the report said Niyazov died early today of sudden heart failure.

A spokesman for the Turkmen Embassy in Moscow confirmed the report, saying Niyazov had died.

Earlier this year, the eccentric leader announced he would provide citizens with natural gas and power free of charge through 2030. Turkmenistan is the second-biggest natural gas producer in the former Soviet Union after Russia.

But he has also tapped the country's vast energy wealth for outlandish projects - a huge, man-made lake in the Kara Kum desert, a vast cypress forest to change the desert climate, an ice palace outside the capital, a ski resort and a 130-foot pyramid.

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