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Authoritarian Leader of Turkmenistan Dies of Cardiac Arrest

The authoritarian leader of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, has died suddenly of cardiac arrest. The 66-year-old leader has ruled the Central Asian nation with an iron fist for more than 20 years. Bill Gasperini has more from Moscow.

Saparmurat Niyazov's death was confirmed in a solemn announcement aired on Turkmen state television, saying the president died during the night of cardiac arrest.

Mr. Niyazov has long had a heart condition and received treatment from various heart specialists. However, the full extent of his illness has never been made public.

Mr. Niyazov is a former Communist Party boss who renamed himself "Turkmenbashi" or "Chief of the Turkmen" after taking full control of the desert republic following the collapse of the Soviet Union. He established an elaborate personality cult and allowed no political opposition or media freedom in the country of five million people.

The "president for life" also built golden statues to himself, one of which revolves during the day, to always face the sun. His image is everywhere, from huge billboards to the national currency to bottles of vodka and perfume. He also constructed various palaces, including one made of ice in the middle of the desert.

He was able to spend widely because of Turkmenistan's vast oil and gas reserves. However observers say little of this benefited the majority of the Turkmen people, who live in poverty.

A book he wrote has become the core of the educational curriculum. Mr. Niyazov even renamed some months of the year after himself and his relatives.

The country's future is uncertain because there is no clear successor, although a deputy prime minister has been appointed to make plans for a funeral.

State television announced that the country's foreign and domestic policies will remain unchanged.