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TURKMENISTAN, June 29: Turkmenistan will launch production at Galkynysh, the world’s second-largest gas field, this autumn when China’s President Xi Jinping pays a visit to the Central Asian nation, Turkmen officials said on Saturday.

Energy-hungry China has supplanted Russia as the main importer of natural gas from Central Asia, once Moscow’s imperial backyard. Turkmenistan, a mainly Muslim nation of 5.5 million, holds the world’s fourth-largest reserves of the fuel.

Galkynysh had been set to produce its first gas by June 30, the 56th birthday of Turkmen President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.

“We want the ceremony of launching Galkynysh to be really a top-level event and we invite China’s leadership to take part in it,” a Turkmen government official told Reuters on condition of anonymity. “Most probably it will happen this autumn.”

Since the start-up of the China-bound pipeline from Central Asia in December 2009, Turkmen gas exports to China have totalled almost 50 billion cubic metres (bcm) as of the end of May 2013. Turkmen data show 2012 gas exports to China stood at 20 bcm.

Service contractors from China, the United Arab Emirates and South Korea are close to completing the first phase of development at Galkynysh, which was begun in 2009 and is worth $9.7bn. Three gas processing plants with a combined annual capacity of 30 bcm will come onstream at Galkynysh by the end of 2013.

Turkmenistan, whose annual natural gas exports to Russia have dropped by three quarters to 10 bcm in the past few years, plans to boost annual supplies to China to 40 bcm in the coming years.

The Turkmen national company TurkmenGas said in May that the second stage of development at Galkynysh would eventually boost Turkmen natural gas exports to China by 25 bcm to 65 bcm a year. China Petroleum Engineering & Construction Corporation said at the time that this volume would be achieved in 2020.—Reuters