President Saparmurad Niyazov today announced the arrest of a leading opponent, Boris Shikhmuradov, who is accused of masterminding a coup attempt last month.

Niyazov broke the news to diplomats outside his gold-domed presidential palace, nearby palm trees dusted by a rare snowfall, as they awaited Pakistani and Afghan leaders who are to sign an important gas pipeline deal.

A presidential spokesman, Serdar Durdiyev, said Shikhmuradov, a former foreign minister, had been detained inside Turkmenistan, a Central Asian republic bordering Afghanistan and Iran. He gave no further details.

Shikhmuradov is the main suspect in a Nov. 25 assassination bid against Niyazov, whose motorcade was raked with gunfire as it moved through Ashgabat, the capital. Niyazov was unharmed.

Turkmenistan's prosecutor general confirmed on state television that Shikhmuradov had been detained, along with the relative of an exiled Turkmen official. She did not say how they were detained.

"The terrorist leader of the bandit group, traitor to his motherland, organizer of the assassination attempt on the president of Turkmenistan, violator of the constitution of Turkmenistan and thief has been detained, along with his supporter Yklym Yklymov," Gurbanbibi Atadzhanova said.

Sapar Yklymov, a prominent Turkmen opposition figure, has denied any connection with the assassination attempt. He is a former deputy agriculture minister now living in Sweden.

The prosecutor general said more details would be made known in parliament on Monday.

Shikhmuradov was sent to China after eight years as foreign minister, but in October 2001 he was recalled to Ashgabat. He refused to return and moved to Moscow, where he became an outspoken critic of Niyazov.

Referred to as Turkmenbashi (Father of the Turkmen), Niyazov is lionized in the media, and portraits and statues of him appear throughout the capital. He blamed the attack on a network of mercenaries, including some from Turkey and neighboring Russia.

Russia has tense relations with the former Soviet republic and sees Niyazov as obstructing plans to share the Caspian Sea's vast mineral wealth on their borders.

Turkmenistan also has tense relations with neighboring Uzbekistan, and gave its ambassador 24 hours to leave last weekend, accusing him of aiding those allegedly behind the attempt to kill Niyazov.

Like Uzbekistan, largely desert Turkmenistan is a cotton producer, and disputes over rights to water from the river that forms part of their border have raised tensions.

Human rights activists say more than 100 people have been arrested following the assassination bid. The United States on Monday warned its nationals against travel to the republic.