Almaty: The United States is preparing to withdraw its Peace Corps volunteers from Kazakhstan, ending its 18-year presence in the Central Asian state, the U.S. embassy said Friday.
There are 121 Peace Corps volunteers currently working in Kazakhstan, according to its official website, http://kazakhstan.peacecorps.gov.
Since its project was launched in 1993, more than 1,000 volunteers have served in Kazakhstan.
"It is our understanding that the Peace Corps will be leaving Kazakhstan," said Jon Larsen, information officer for the U.S. Embassy in Kazakhstan.
He declined to give a reason for the withdrawal.
Ex-Soviet Kazakhstan, four times the size of Texas, is a predominantly Muslim country of 16.6 million people. The oil-producing country, Central Asia`s largest economy, has seen an unprecedented spate of militant attacks this year.
"They are recalling U.S. volunteers working in Kazakhstan," said Larisa Koisina, headmistress of the Assol private school in the central Kazakh city of Karagandy, where two Peace Corps volunteers had been teaching English.
"This is terrible, but this is true," she told Reuters by telephone. "I did not believe this and called the U.S. Embassy myself. They told me that it`s not only the Peace Corps, but also USAID and others."
The Peace Corps office in Almaty, Kazakhstan`s largest city, directed all queries to the U.S. embassy. Representatives of the Almaty office of USAID, the U.S. Agency for International Development, were not available for comment.
In a message published on its website, Bob Cone, country director for the Peace Corps in Kazakhstan, said volunteers were focusing this year on English language development and youth development. Cone was not available for comment.
Joel Benjamin, an Almaty-based partner in law firm SNR Denton, was part of the first group of volunteers which arrived in 1993. He said he believed the Peace Corps` role was still relevant for Kazakhstan today.
"A big part of what the Peace Corps does is placing English teachers in locations where schools wouldn`t otherwise have access to such resources," said Benjamin, who lived in the northern Kazakh city of Kokshetau between 1993 and 1995.
"If you want to move this country economically, it helps to have people speaking English," he said. He added that he had no information about the withdrawal of volunteers.
Koisina, the headmistress, said she believed the withdrawal could be linked to the recent spate of militant attacks in a country previously viewed as the most secure in former Soviet Central Asia, a region lying to the north of Afghanistan.
An Islamist militant killed seven people and blew himself up in the southern city of Taraz Saturday, the latest in a series of attacks in the oil-producing state.
"All U.S. volunteers are being recalled now," she said. "It`s a pity, because I have worked with U.S. volunteers for 17 years now, and they have been of great help, especially teaching our schoolchildren proper English."
Kazakhstan`s Education Ministry declined to comment.