By Olzhas Auyezov | ALMATY
Uzbek President Islam Karimov has died aged 78 after suffering a stroke, three diplomatic sources told Reuters on Friday, leaving no obvious successor to take over the Central Asian nation.
The Uzbek government did not immediately confirm the reports. Earlier on Friday it said the health of Karimov, who has been in hospital since last Saturday, had sharply deteriorated.
Long criticized by the West and human rights groups for his authoritarian style of leadership, Karimov had ruled Uzbekistan since 1989, first as the head of the local Communist Party and then as president of the newly independent republic from 1991.
"Yes, he has died," one of the diplomatic sources said when asked about Karimov's condition.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim became the first foreign leader to offer condolences over the death of Karimov. The two countries have close ethnic, cultural and linguistic ties.
Karimov did not designate a successor and analysts say the transition of power is likely to be decided behind closed doors by a small group of senior officials and family members.
If they fail to agree on a compromise, however, open confrontation could destabilize Uzbekistan, which shares a border with Afghanistan and has become a target for Islamist militants.
Uzbekistan is a major cotton exporter and is also rich in gold and natural gas.
A hint at who will succeed Karimov may come with the government's announcement of his death - which one source said was expected later on Friday - and whoever it names to head the commission in charge of organizing the funeral.
The funeral appeared likely to take place in Karimov's hometown of Samarkand, where his mother and two brothers are also buried. Municipal authorities there mobilized public workers to clean the central streets late on Thursday.
According the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, the Samarkand airport was closed for arriving and departing aircraft on Saturday "except operations officially confirmed for this date" and all previous permissions for this date were canceled.
This could indicate the government was making way for official foreign delegations to arrive.
Among potential successors to Karimov are Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev and his deputy Rustam Azimov. Security service chief Rustam Inoyatov and Karimov's younger daughter Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva could become kingmakers.
According to the constitution, Nigmatilla Yuldoshev, the chairman of the upper house of parliament, is supposed to take over after Karimov's death, and elections must take place within three months.
However, analysts do not consider Yuldoshev a serious player. His erstwhile counterpart in Turkmenistan, who was also supposed to become interim leader after the death of authoritarian president Saparmurat Niyazov in 2006, was quickly detained and thus eliminated from the line of succession.
Whoever succeeds Karimov will need to balance carefully between the West, Russia and China, which all vie for influence in the resource-rich Central Asian region.
Another task of the new leader will be resolving tensions with ex-Soviet neighbors Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan over disputed borders and the use of common resources such as water.
(Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov in Almaty and Lidia Kelly in Moscow; Editing by Christian Lowe and Gareth Jones)