Turkmen Leader to Visit NATO Forum

ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan -- Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov will attend a NATO summit in April, the first leader of his long-isolated homeland to seek closer ties with the Western security alliance, state media reported.

Berdymukhammedov will visit Bucharest from April 2 to 4, the state Turkmen Khabarlary agency said late last week.

Turkmenistan, Central Asia's top natural gas exporter, was isolated first under Soviet rule and then during the 21-year reign of reclusive leader Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in late 2006.

Berdymukhammedov has made steps to end isolation and balance his nation's traditionally close relations with Russia by boosting ties with the West.

Moscow is particularly sensitive to former Soviet states' contacts with NATO and still sees Central Asia as part of its sphere of interest.

Separately, Turkmenistan has named an ambassador to neighboring Azerbaijan seven years after recalling its envoy during a dispute over Caspian Sea hydrocarbon resources, the state newspaper Neutral Turkmenistan reported.

Turkmenistan's former consul general in Turkey, Annamammed Mamedov, has been named ambassador to Azerbaijan.

Improving relations between the two energy-rich nations offers a glimmer of hope for building a gas pipeline circumventing Russia -- a proposal backed by the European Union and the United States.