Turkmen president falls from horse, state media silent

MOSCOW (AFP) - Turkmenistan's equestrian-mad President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov suffered a spectacular fall from his horse after a race, according to Internet videos, but state media in the isolated ex-Soviet state maintained a rigid silence on the incident.

Mr Berdymukhamedov suffered the fall seconds after he won a kilometre-long horse race in Ashgabat on his favourite mount Berkarar (The Powerful) at an annual horse festival on Sunday.

The videos show a man identified as the president and dressed in traditional riding robes being thrown to the ground as the horse appears to stutter just after crossing the finishing line.

The figure lies motionless face down in the race track sands for several seconds before dozens of black-suited security officials run from the stands and hide him from view. Eventually a van appears and takes him away.

Turkmenistan state media this week reported in great detail on the president's victory in the horse race, which won him a cash prize of US$11 million (S$13.5 mllion), all of which he donated to an official horse fund.

Government newspaper Neutral Turkmenistan devoted four pages to his victory, with six giant pictures of the president in national costume.

But there was no mention of the president's potentially serious mishap in the press or on television. The race was shown on state television, but the footage cuts abruptly just after the finish.

The president was shown on state television Monday evening - apparently in good health - holding a video conference with regional governors. On Tuesday he was shown holding a meeting on migration.

But news websites close to the exiled Turkmen opposition said the incident had caused huge concern in Ashgabat, with officials scrambling to prevent more footage leaving the country.

The Gundogar news site said that officials at Ashgabat's international airport had been making intensive checks of passengers leaving the country in search of phones, tablets and cameras of footage of the incident.

It quoted sources at the interior ministry as saying several dozen people have already been arrested on suspicion of trying to smuggle out footage.

However, the incident was shown on Russian state television. Sources inside Turkmenistan said on Wednesday that access to Russian social networks had been halted and all the Internet was working painfully slowly.

Mr Berdymukhamedov has made stabs at reform in the reclusive ex-Soviet state since taking over after the death of his notoriously eccentric predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov in 2006.

But there has been little change to the status of Turkmenistan as one of the world's most isolated countries under Mr Berdymukhamedov, who won a new term in February 2012 with 97 per cent of the vote and is known as the "Protector".

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