The president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, has passed away, according to the authorities in the ex-Soviet state. His death may trigger a power struggle among top officials of the Asian country.
Rumors of Karimov's death were circulating for days before several news agencies - citing unnamed sources - finally confirmed it on Friday. Uzbek authorities also confirmed the longtime leader's death, but only after several foreign leaders sent their condolences.
The Uzbek leader died after battling a "severe illness" and will be buried on Saturday, they said in a statement.
Earlier on Friday, Turkey's officials expressed their condolences.
"As the Turkish republic, we share the sorrow of the Uzbek people," Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said during a televised cabinet meeting. "May Allah rest him in peace."
Russian President Vladimir Putin also lamented Karimov's death, saying it was a "great loss for the people of Uzbekistan." The last Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev praised Karimov as a "capable man with a strong character."
Funeral in Samarkand
Speculation mounted on Thursday following a report by Reuters saying that authorities had started cleaning up Karimov's home town of Samarkand, apparently preparing it for the leader's funeral. The president's mother and two brothers are buried in the city. The government later said that the long-time leader would receive an Islamic funeral and be laid to rest in Samarkand.
The Russian Interfax news agency confirmed Karimov's death citing official sources earlier on Friday, but soon retracted the news, citing a "technical error."
The 78-year-old leader had been in intensive care after suffering a stroke last week.
Earlier today, the Tashkent government said that the president's health had "deteriorated sharply," and that doctors had said his condition was "critical."
The ex-Soviet nation of 32 million is rich in gold, natural gas, and is also a major cotton exporter.
End of an era
Karimov ruled Uzbekistan with an iron grip for more than 25 years, first as the republic's Communist Party chief in 1989, then as president when the country became independent in 1991 following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
He has used the threat of militant Islam to crack down on any opposition.
Karimov's regime has repeatedly been accused of violating human rights, including torture and forced labor in the country's cotton industry. In 2005, authorities were accused of killing hundreds of protesters in Andijan, in Uzbekistan's east.
Power vacuum at the top
The authoritarian leader has no clear successor, prompting concerns that his death could lead to a period of instability in the heart of Central Asia.
Karimov's eldest daughter, Gulnara, once thought to have been groomed to take over from her father, has not appeared in public since 2014 amid rumors she has been put under house arrest. She has been accused of widespread corruption by prosecutors in the United States and Europe.
Karimov's second daughter, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, is Uzbekistan's ambassador to Paris-based UNESCO.
Other frontrunners for his position include Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev and his deputy, Rustam Azimov. Mirziyoyev has been put in charge of organizing Karimov's funeral.
dj/kms (AFP, Reuters, AP, dpa, Interfax)