ALMATY (Reuters) - The U.S. Peace Corps is withdrawing nearly 120 volunteers from Kazakhstan, ending its 18-year presence in Central Asia’s largest economy following a spate of Islamist militant attacks.
The Peace Corps said on Friday it was suspending its operations in Kazakhstan for “a number of operational considerations”, without giving further details. It said its 117 volunteers in the country were safe.
Kazakhstan, a country of 16.6 million people four times the size of Texas, is the largest oil producer in Central Asia and its economy has grown to become the largest in the region in the 20 years since independence from the Soviet Union.
More than 1,120 Peace Corps volunteers have served in Kazakhstan since 1993, working with communities in projects focused on teaching English, education, youth development and HIV prevention.
Some officials say Kazakhstan, where per capita GDP exceeds $9,000, has outgrown the need for the Peace Corps, an organisation that traces its roots to future President John F. Kennedy’s 1960 call for students to work in developing nations.
The Peace Corps itself, citing the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index, said Kazakhstan was one of the most developed countries to host a programme.
Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Education and Science said the suspension was “a logical step” given the country’s development.
“This organisation assists mainly in the least developed countries,” it said in a statement. “Many programmes of the Peace Corps in Kazakhstan, in general, have come to their conclusion.”
Jon Larsen, spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Kazakhstan, confirmed the Peace Corps would be leaving the country but said he was unable to comment on the reasons for the withdrawal.
Larisa Koisina, headmistress of a private school in the central Kazakh city of Karagandy where two Peace Corps volunteers had taught, said she believed the withdrawal could be linked to a spate of militant attacks in a country long viewed as comparatively peaceful.
An Islamist militant killed seven people and blew himself up in the city of Taraz on Saturday, in the latest of a series of attacks.
“All U.S. volunteers are being recalled now,” Koisina 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.”
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.
Since 1961, more than 200,000 U.S. citizens have served in the Peace Corps in 139 different countries.
The suspension of the Kazakhstan programme leaves Kyrgyzstan, with 89 volunteers, and Turkmenistan, with 25, as the only countries in the region with a Peace Corps presence. The Uzbekistan programme was closed in 2005.
Editing by Andrew Roche