BAIKONUR COSMODROME, Kazakhstan, June 18 (Reuters) The former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan launched its first communications satellite into orbit today, joining the club of world space powers.
Russian President Vladimir Putin joined Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev to witness the launch of the unmanned, Russian-built KazSat 1 as the sun rose over the barren steppe surrounding the Baikonur Cosmodrome in western Kazakhstan.
The 65 million dollar satellite is part of Nazarbayev's wider plan to raise the profile of his country, one of the world's top 20 oil producers, as a key player in the Central Asian region while maintaining good ties with neighbouring Russia.
Putin watched the launch through binoculars while Nazarbayev pointed at the Russian-built Proton booster rocket that carried the satellite into space. The two leaders left shortly afterwards without speaking to reporters.
Nazarbayev has ruled Kazakhstan since 1989, first as communist boss, then as president. The former Soviet republic of 15 million people is the world's ninth-largest country.
The satellite will be used for television broadcasting and other communication services in Kazakhstan and elsewhere in Central Asia.
Its originally planned launch in December 2005 was delayed due to unspecified technical problems.
''I congratulate you all on our victory. Kazakhstan has become a new space power,'' said Igor Panarin, spokesman for Russia's state space authority.
''Both presidents were quite nervous before the launch but they showed a lot of satisfaction with its success.'' The Baikonur cosmodrome was used by the Soviet Union to launch its first Sputnik satellite in 1957.
REUTERS PDS RAI0713