Russian, Kazakh presidents to mark 50 years of world's largest space launch site

Russian President Vladimir Putin was traveling Thursday to Kazakhstan to join celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the world's largest space launch site.

Putin was also scheduled to hold a one-on-one meeting with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev at the Soviet-built Baikonur Cosmodrome, in the isolated steppes of western Kazakhstan. The content of the talks has not been disclosed.

Putin's trip is his first visit to formerly Soviet Central Asia after the bloody suppression of a revolt in Uzbekistan last month. The Uzbek opposition and rights groups say hundreds of civilians died when troops opened fire on demonstrators in the eastern city of Andijan. The official death toll is 173.

The violence in Uzbekistan came less than two months after a popular uprising in neighboring Kyrgyzstan that ousted the authoritarian leader there. Long-standing leaders also fell in the past 20 month in two other ex-Soviet republics, Georgia and Ukraine.

Nazarbayev, also accused of authoritarianism, has been increasingly jittery.

Russia has backed Central Asia's undemocratic regimes in a bid to preserve its influence in the strategically located energy-rich region.

Baikonur, initially designed as a testing ground for a secret Soviet ballistic missiles program, was the scene of the historic launches of the first satellite to orbit the Earth and of pioneer cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.

Kazakhstan inherited the cosmodrome after the 1991 Soviet collapse. Russia now uses Baikonur, its sole launch site for manned space missions, under a lease agreement.

In the past two years, Baikonur has been the only gateway to the international space station since the U.S. shuttle fleet was grounded after the Columbia disintegrated during its return to Earth, killing all seven astronauts on board.

Putin and Nazarbayev will visit Baikonur's main launch pads and assembly units and meet with veterans of space exploration.

They will also lay the foundation stone of a new joint Russian-Kazakh launch complex, Baiterek, for the more environmentally friendly Angara vehicle, an alternative to the Soyuz booster now in use. Soyuz uses poisonous fuel and litters the countryside with the debris of burnt-out rocket stages as its capsules soar into space.

The US$400 million (€327 million) complex is expected to be completed in 2008-2009.

The Baiterek project is seen as the result of the Kazakhs' long campaign to minimize pollution from rocket launches from their territory and also a breakthrough in the oil-rich nation's ambitious plans to become Russia's partner in space exploration.

Russia pays US$115 million (€94 million) annually for the use of Baikonur under a deal effective through 2050.

The cosmodrome extends for 85 kilometers (50 miles) from north to south, and for 125 kilometers (80 miles) east to west. It has dozens of launch pads and five tracking-control centers, nine tracking stations, and a 1,500-kilometer (930-mile) missile test range.

The cash-strapped Russian space agency has abandoned many space programs since the Soviet collapse, leaving many of Baikonur facilities to rust and crumble.

BAGILA BUKHARBAYEVA, Associated Press Writer

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