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Public workers mobilised in hometown of ill Uzbek leader

Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov attends a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, August 29, 2006. Picture taken August 29, 2006. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov/File Picture

ALMATY (Reuters) - Authorities in Samarkand, the birthplace of Uzbek President Islam Karimov, have urgently mobilised public workers to clean the city’s central streets, a source familiar with the matter told Reuters, in a possible sign of preparations for a funeral.

Karimov, 78, suffered a brain haemorrhage on Saturday according to his daughter, and the Tashkent government has since remained silent about his condition, prompting speculation that the veteran authoritarian leader may have died.

The source told Reuters by telephone from Uzbekistan that public workers had been mobilised unexpectedly, late in the day. Municipal authorities in the former Soviet Union usually take such measures before major events such as visits by state or foreign leaders.

In Karimov’s case, however, this could also indicate preparations for a funeral. Not only is Samarkand Karimov’s birthplace, it is also the place where Amir Timur (Tamerlane), a Turkic conqueror promoted by Karimov as a national hero, is buried.

City authorities in Samarkand could not be reached for comment. The Uzbek service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty also reported unusual activity in central Samarkand, citing anonymous sources. It published several photographs, submitted by its readers, of workers sweeping and washing the area.

The BBC reported that some streets were closed to the public, also citing anonymous sources.

Earlier on Thursday, senior Uzbek officials failed to show up at an event marking 25 years of independence from Moscow, leaving foreign diplomats guessing who was running the country in Karimov’s absence. A concert and a fireworks show were also cancelled.

Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Jack Stubbs and Mark Trevelyan