Turkmen leader sacks state gas head over lack of diversification
* Gas-fuelled GDP growth in line with IMF estimates
* But president says vital gas industry still underperforms
By Marat Gurt
ASHGABAT, Jan 11 (Reuters) - Turkmen President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has fired the head of state gas company Turkmengaz for doing too little to diversify the vital gas industry that underpins the Central Asian state's economy.
Turkmenistan, a mainly Muslim nation of 5.5 million with the world's fourth-largest natural gas reserves, has been ramping up gas exports to China via a pipeline built in 2009, while exports to Russia have dwindled in the last few years.
Berdymukhamedov, who enjoys a personality cult and is titled Arkadag (The Patron), was shown on Saturday on state television saying that the gas sector was underperforming despite billions of dollars invested there in recent years.
"For example, we could have raised production and exports of liquefied gas and other products which are in great demand on world markets," he told a government meeting.
He then sacked Turkmengaz head Kakageldy Abdullayev, who had held the job for just one year. His predecessor was also fired in January 2013 after the autocratic ruler cited faults in his work.
Little-known Charymuhammed Hommadov, described by state media as "a person with great experience of work in the gas sector", was appointed as the new head of Turkmengaz.
While criticizing the mainstay state company, however, Berdymukhamedov said that fast economic growth continued in 2013. Gross domestic product expanded by 10.2 percent last year, he said. GDP rose by 11.1 percent in 2012.
Turkmenistan's growth is largely in line with projections made by the International Monetary Fund, which in November forecast Turkmen GDP to grow by 10.1 percent in 2013 and by 10.7 percent in 2014, owing mainly to rising gas exports to China.
Berdymukhamedov and Chinese President Xi Jinping inaugurated Galkynysh, the world's second-largest natural gas field, in September.
Turkmenistan has won the support of the United States and the European Union for alternative pipeline routes to sell its gas to Europe and to Pakistan and India. But to date, these projects exist only on paper.
Turkmenistan had planned to produce 76.9 billion cubic metres (bcm) of natural gas last year and export 43 bcm. Output data for 2013 are not yet available. The desert nation aims to more than triple gas output in the next two decades. (Editing by Mark Heinrich)