MOSCOW — Uzbekistan appeared to be preparing for a state funeral after saying Friday that the country’s president is critically ill. Islam Karimov has run an authoritarian government in the Central Asian nation since 1989, and cultivated no apparent successor.
Karimov, 78, hasn’t been seen in public since mid-August, but his government admitted only last weekend that he was ill. His daughter Lola said he had suffered a brain hemorrhage, and a swarm of unofficial reports have placed him close to death or even dead.
“Dear compatriots, it is with a heavy heart that we inform you that the health of our President has sharply deteriorated in the past 24 hours to reach a critical state, according to the doctors,” the government’s statement read.
The uncertainty over Karimov’s health has raised concerns that Uzbekistan could face prolonged infighting among clans over leadership claims, something its Islamic radical movement could exploit. Given the lack of access to the country it’s hard to judge how powerful the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan might be, but the group has over the years been affiliated with the Taliban, al-Qaida and the Islamic State group and has sent fighters abroad.
Uzbekistan celebrated its Independence Day on Thursday, and it was widely assumed that the government would not break any news until after the festivities. On Friday, indications mounted that the country was preparing for a funeral.
Photographs posted Friday by the respected Central Asian news website Fergana.ru showed what appeared to be undertakers in Karimov’s hometown of Samarkand working on a cemetery plot in the graveyard where Karimov’s family is buried.
The Samarkand airport issued a notice saying it would be closed to all flights except specially approved aircraft on Saturday, according to the website of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.
A top diplomat in neighboring Kyrgyzstan told The Associated Press that the Kyrgyz prime minister had been invited to Karimov’s funeral and would attend, leaving Friday or Saturday. The official spoke only on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
In Ankara, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim offered his condolences to the Uzbek people for Karimov’s death, though it was not clear how he got the news.
Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Kremlin had no confirmation that Karimov might be dead.
Uzbek opposition blogger Nadezhda Atayeva said Uzbek authorities appeared to be cracking down on communication channels. Speaking from western France, she said an opposition contact in Uzbekistan told her Friday morning via Skype that government officials had been told to turn off their phones and Internet speeds had slowed sharply.
As he spoke, she said, the signal went dead.
Angela Charlton in Paris, Leila Saralayeva in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, and Zeynep Bilginsoy in Istanbul contributed to this report.