Turkmenistan's leader appears at Hell's Gate to dispel rumors of own death

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ALMATY (Reuters) - After a weeks-long disappearance that sparked rumors of his death, the president of Turkmenistan, Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, appeared on state television on Sunday driving a rally car to a flaming gas crater known as Hell’s Gate.

The 62-year-old autocratic leader disappeared from public view in late July and several foreign media outlets, citing unnamed sources, reported at the time that he had died. The government of the gas-exporting Central Asian country denied that and said he was simply on vacation.

On Sunday, state television broadcast a report about Berdymukhamedov’s holiday, which showed him driving a rally car to the Hell’s Gate crater - a flaming pit in the middle of the Karakum Desert.

The report also showed Berdymukhamedov, wearing a military-style outfit and a backwards-facing baseball cap, score three strikes in a bowling game, prompting rounds of standing applause from underlings dressed in identical tracksuits.

Berdymukhamedov has run the former Soviet republic - which exports natural gas by pipelines to China and Russia - since the death in 2006 of his equally authoritarian predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov.

Commonly referred to as Arkadag, or Protector, Berdymukhamedov has been steadily promoting his son Serdar, who is now regarded as a potential successor after becoming a provincial governor in June.

Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Frances Kerry