IMAGE: Saparmurat Niyazov
Sergei Grits  /  AP file
Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov, seen here in May 2005, ruled the energy-rich country for more than two decades before his sudden death on Thursday
updated 12/21/2006 7:44:46 AM ET 2006-12-21T12:44:46

Authoritarian President Saparmurat Niyazov, who has ruled energy-rich Turkmenistan for more than two decades, has died, Turkmen state television and officials said Thursday. He was 66.

State television showed Niyazov's portrait in a black frame, and a news presenter was reading a list of his accomplishments and merits. In a terse statement, the report said Niyazov died early Thursday of sudden heart failure. A spokesman for the Turkmen Embassy in Moscow confirmed the report, saying Niyazov had died.

In 1997, Niyazov underwent major heart surgery in a German clinic and last month he for the first time acknowledged publicly that he had heart disease.

The Turkmen leader, head of the Central Asian nation since 1985 when it was a Soviet republic, created an elaborate personality cult, renaming months and days in the calendar after himself and his family, and ordering statues of him to be erected throughout the desert nation.

Earlier this year, the eccentric leader announced he would provide citizens with natural gas and power free of charge through 2030. Turkmenistan is the second-biggest natural gas producer in the former Soviet Union after Russia.

But he has also tapped the country's vast energy wealth for outlandish projects -- a huge, man-made lake in the Kara Kum desert, a vast cypress forest to change the desert climate, an ice palace outside the capital, a ski resort and a 130-foot pyramid.

Niyazov was Turkmenistan's Soviet-era Communist Party boss. Golden statues and busts of the president are scattered across the country, and his portrait is on every bank note and coin.

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