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UN chief tours troubled ex-Soviet Central Asia

ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan (AP) — U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Friday pushed Turkmenistan to improve its human rights record, opening a trip through ex-Soviet Central Asia where complaints of violations are extensive.

"I called on the government to fulfill all obligations under international human rights law and the many treaties to which it is a signatory," Ban said after meeting Turkmen President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov.

The Turkmen leader, sitting next to Ban, did not mention human rights in his post-meeting statement or in an earlier session with Ban and the Cabinet.

However, after later meetings with other Turkmen officials, Ban reported some satisfying progress.

He said Turkmenistan has agreed to invite a United Nations human rights special rapporteur focusing on education — an issue of concern after the country's educational system severely deteriorated under Berdymukhamedov's egomaniacal predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov, who made his book of spiritual wisdom required reading.

Turkmenistan also aims to begin bringing its penitentiary system into conformity with international standards, Ban said. A senior U.N. official traveling with the delegation said access to prisoners, food and health were notable concerns.

The dichotomy between Ban's and Berdymukhamedov's public position on human rights underlined the delicacy of the issue facing the U.N. leader on the trip.

Human rights advocates have urged Ban to use the six-day blitz visit to five countries to pressure the leaders. But the autocratic presidents of these countries resent outside criticism on the issue.

Ban appeared to be trying to walk a firm but delicate line in Turkmenistan by employing both criticism and praise. He repeatedly congratulated Berdymukhamedov for reforms in the country during his three years in power, at one point nudging him by saying: "As you are still in the transition to full democracy."

Berdymukhamdov rules with unchallenged power in a state that has only a single political party and no visible independent activists. But he has allowed limited Internet access to private citizens, raised the prospects of allowing a second political party and removed many of the once-omnipresent images of Niyazov, who established a suffocating cult of personality.

How far he is willing to go in reforms, or even how much he can do, is unclear.

Niyazov called himself Turkmenbashi, "Father of All Tukmen," and still casts a long shadow in the country.

Directly after meeting Berdymukhamedov, Ban and his delegation made a solemn visit to Niyazov's marble-and-gold mausoleum to lay a wreath.

Kyrgyzstan, the next stop, on Saturday, once appeared to be the opposite of Turkmenistan, and was hailed as the region's "island of democracy." But since Kurmanbek Bakiyev took office in 2005 following protests that drove out the previous president, pressure on human rights activists and independent media has increased. Last month, Bakiyev questioned whether Western-style democracy was appropriate for the country.

Kyrgyzstan is small and has few natural resources, but its stability is of concern to both East and West. Russia and the United States both have air bases in the country; the U.S. base is a key part of the military campaign in Afghanistan.

Frustrations over poverty and rights have contributed to growing support for the Hizb ut-Tahrir movement, which advocates an Islamic caliphate in Kyrgyzstan and in Uzbekistan, Ban's next stop.

Ban's meeting with Uzbek leader Islam Karimov is likely to be the most tense of the trip, coming less than two weeks after the U.N. Human Rights Committee sharply criticized the country. In particular, the committee called for a more thorough investigation of the brutal suppression of a 2005 uprising in the city of Andijan. Opposition and rights groups claim that hundreds were killed, but authorities insist the reports are exaggerated and angrily reject any criticism.

Ban then continues to Tajikistan, still struggling to overcome the devastation of a five-year civil war against Islamists in the 1990s and to fight the surge of Afghan opium that penetrates its porous border en route to European addicts.

The trip concludes in Kazakhstan, where media and activist groups operate with some freedom. But President Nursultan Nazarbayev's party holds all the seats in the elected lower house of parliament, and critics doubt the country's commitment to reform.

(This version CORRECTS Corrects to lower case "m'' in U.N. chief's name in the lede.)