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Peace Corps to quit Kazakhstan in Central Asia

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PETER LEONARD | November 18, 2011 08:59 AM EST | AP

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BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — The U.S. Peace Corps will pull out of the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan, a move that follows reports from volunteers about a spate of sexual assaults and Islamist-inspired terrorist attacks on the program's workers.

Peace Corps has been in Kazakhstan since shortly after the former Soviet nation gained independence in 1991 and currently boasts around 120 volunteers working in the fields of education and health. It has sent around 1,000 volunteers to serve in the country since it started operations there in 1993.

U.S. Embassy spokesman Jon Larsen said the Peace Corps will be leaving but gave no specific details on why. The Peace Corps also declined to give an immediate explanation for the withdrawal.

Several volunteers, however, posted messages online linking the move to rapes and other attacks. One Peace Corps volunteer teaching English in the central Karaganda province was reportedly raped earlier this month.

Peace Corps volunteers who had been raped while serving overseas complained to U.S. lawmakers in May that the organization was not doing enough to train its workers about how to avoid or deal with violent attacks. They also said the Peace Corps reacted insensitively and unhelpfully after the crimes.

Kazakhstan has also seen a rash of terrorist attacks in recent months. Last weekend, a gunman went on a rampage in the southern city of Taraz, killing seven people, including five law enforcement officers. He blew himself up as officers moved in to arrest him.

Kazakhstan, a vast oil-rich and mainly Muslim nation of 17 million people along Russia's southern border, had previously been all but untouched by Islamist violence since independence.

Peace Corps youth development volunteer Lisa Murray wrote on her blog that several colleagues had experienced difficulties in carrying out their work over recent months.

"Many were prohibited from working for months at a time and ultimately they were moved earlier in the fall to new sites," she wrote.

Murray also said the youth development program was being discontinued because of concerns the volunteers were not qualified teachers. The scheduled arrival of a new group of volunteers earlier this year was postponed due to a disagreement with education authorities, she said.

Peace Corps, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, has been sending volunteers to some of the most obscure areas of the former Soviet Union for almost two decades. Its operations in Central Asia are devoted to teaching English and health education, but it is often viewed with suspicion by governments in former Soviet states.

In 2002, Russia expelled the organization and accused some of its volunteers of spying. The reclusive and authoritarian Central Asian nation of Turkmenistan, which borders Kazakhstan to the south, in 2009 denied entry to dozens of Peace Corps volunteers for undisclosed reasons.