Khatami Leaves Caspian Talks

ReutersPutin taking a walk with Niyazov at the Caspian summit in Ashgabat on Tuesday.
ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan -- The opening day of a two-day summit on dividing the Caspian Sea ended with an apparent walkout by Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, although Turkmen officials and summit participants promptly denied it.

Khatami left the closed-door meeting with members of his delegation and went straight to his car, ignoring journalists who had been told the five presidents of Caspian littoral states would come out together and make a joint statement.

In the confusion surrounding his swift and unexpected departure, officials in Turkmenistan played down its significance.

"It's normal," said one Foreign Ministry official, adding that the meeting had reached its scheduled end. The five presidents were then due to attend an official dinner hosted by Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov.

The summit on dividing the gas-rich Caspian between Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan was always expected to be difficult after a decade of disputes over who owns what.

Before it opened, Turkmen officials had said it would be hard to solve all the problems immediately and called the summit, the first such meeting between the five presidents, "a first step."

A new legal status for the landlocked Caspian is needed following the breakup of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991. Until then it was governed by a 1970 agreement between Iran and the Soviet Union, then the only littoral states.

The appearance of three more, all keen to enjoy the hydrocarbon wealth of the sea, has made a new division an urgent matter for them.

All five presidents made brief opening speeches at which the press were present, and it was quickly clear that they held positions that were going to be hard to bridge.

Turkmenistan's Niyazov, for example, publicly accused Azeri President Heidar Aliyev of intransigence over an oil field disputed by the two.

"I am ready to discuss this with Heidar Aliyev, but he is categorical and says 'this is our sector,'" said Niyazov, pointing out that the field in question was just 120 kilometers from Turkmenistan but 184 kilometers from Azerbaijan.

"So who is right and who is wrong?"

President Vladimir Putin said a great deal about the fragile ecology of the Caspian, home to dwindling stocks of sturgeon, and little about oil -- the real reason for interest in the Caspian.

The summit was due to resume at 10 a.m. Wednesday, after which the presidents are to sign a joint declaration and give a press conference together.

Khatami will then continue a five-nation Central Asian tour, flying to Kazakhstan, while the others return home

  About a ton of oil spilled from a Russian tanker into Kazakhstan's section of the Caspian Sea, The Associated Press reported emergency officials as saying Tuesday.

The Viktor Kibinok tanker was docked in the Kazakh port of Aktyrau when rough weather caused the oil to spill Saturday night, said Baishiklyk Sarman, deputy head of the regional emergencies department.

The oil tank's latch was open and it was filled beyond capacity, he said.

He said the conclusion of a preliminary investigation into the reason for the accident was unanimous: "negligence by the crew."

It was unclear what punitive measures would be taken.