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Turkmen statue turns its last

Turkmenistan's president has ordered the removal of a rotating golden statue of former dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, his most decisive move yet to dismantle one of the world's most eccentric personality cults.

Niyazov ran the former Soviet Central Asian republic for 21 years before his death in 2006. Known as Turkmenbashi, or the leader of all Turkmen, he renamed calendar months after members of his own family and forced all students to study his sayings.

Since taking power in 2007, President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has reversed some of Niyazov's more bizarre reforms, such as a ban on circuses, and removed some signs of his predecessor's personality cult.

But until now he had not dared to touch the centrepiece, a gold-plated statue that rotates to follow the sun atop a 75-metre-tall (246 feet) tower, dominating the centre of the capital Ashgabat.

State-run news agency Turkmen Khabarlary said late on Sunday that the removal of the 12-metre (40-foot) statue and the Arch of Neutrality tower which it tops would "improve the architectural image of Ashgabat."

But it said a new, even higher tower will be built in a southern suburb of the city to replace it.

"The statue was the most potent symbol of Niyazov's regime. It was designed to make him look like a god," said Alexei Malashenko, a specialist in Central Asian politics with the Carnegie Centre.

"But the removal is largely symbolic. Berdymukhamedov is ruling very much in the style of his mentor."

Despite some market reforms, Berdymukhamedov has disappointed reformers by maintaining Niyazov's authoritarian style. Giant portraits of Berdymukhamedov adorn the streets of the capital.