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President Hu opens Kazakh section of new Central Asia-China pipeline

ASTANA/OTAR -- Chinese leader Hu Jintao opened the Kazakh section of a new Central Asia-China gas pipeline on Saturday, tightening Beijing's control over natural resources in the vast energy-rich region.

Lying on some of the world's biggest oil, gas and metals reserves, mainly Muslim Central Asia is at the center of a geopolitical tug-of-war between China, Russia and the West, all seeking to grab a share of its untapped riches.

On a visit to the Kazakh capital Astana, Hu and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev pressed a symbolic button to inaugurate the Kazakh stretch of the new 1,833-kilometer (1,139-mile) Turkmenistan-China pipeline. The entire pipeline, running from gas-rich Turkmenistan to China's restive region of Xinjiang via Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, will be formally commissioned on December 14 when Hu travels to Turkmenistan for an official ceremony.

“It's a huge project that will one day restore the ancient Silk Road route,” Nazarbayev told Hu in Astana, referring to a mediaeval network of trading routes that ran across Eurasia. In the icy steppe on the Kazakh border where the pipeline enters China, Chinese and Kazakh officials hugged and cheered following the Astana ceremony, some waving national flags.

The pipeline, which starts near a Turkmen gas field developed by China's CNPC, marks a new milestone in Beijing's quest for control over Central Asia's untapped energy resources. China has already stepped up its presence in the region by handing out billions of dollars in loans, snapping up energy assets and building a separate oil pipeline from Kazakhstan.

On the sidelines of Hu's visit, officials signed a range of investment deals, all detailing earlier agreements between Astana and Beijing, in sectors such as steel and chemicals.

New Pipeline

In Kazakhstan for the ceremony and talks with Nazarbayev, Hu is now due to travel to Turkmenistan this weekend for a summit of nations involved in the pipeline project including Uzbekistan's reclusive President Islam Karimov.

With capacity of 40 billion cubic meters (bcm) a year, the new pipeline will ease Turkmenistan's dependence on Russia, which purchased about 50 bcm a year before the two nations fell out over gas supply terms this year.

Russia's Gazprom (GAZP.MM) stopped buying Turkmen gas in April after a pipeline explosion sparked a broader diplomatic row over gas. The move has cost Turkmenistan about US$1 billion a month and prompted it to forge closer ties with other nations.

China, for its part, has helped Turkmenistan partially offset the losses by giving it a US$3 billion loan to develop the South Iolotan field, one of the world's five largest natural gas deposits.

As part of its diversification policy, Turkmenistan is also due to open a new gas pipeline to its southern neighbor Iran later this month.

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