Prague, 30 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The three senators spoke at a news conference in Tashkent on yesterday that was attended by representatives of four Uzbek opposition groups. The senators warned Uzbek authorities the 13 May shooting of civilians who were protesting in the eastern city of Andijon could not be overlooked.
Senator John McCain (of Arizona) led the criticism. Calling the events in Andijon "shocking but not unexpected," McCain urged the Uzbek government to heed international calls for an independent investigation into the killings.
"I think the degree of economic and political repression we see is almost certainly greater."
McCain recommended that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), of which Uzbekistan is a member, conduct that investigation and added that the U.S. government could not continue to enjoy good ties with Uzbekistan under the current circumstances.
"We believe there should be a complete investigation conducted by the OSCE and I believe that the United States must make the [Uzbek] government understand that a relationship is very difficult, if not impossible, if a government continues to repress its people," he said. "And history shows continued repression of human rights leads to tragedy such as the one that just took place."
McCain said the delegation met with four Uzbek opposition groups but no government official agreed to meet with them.
The death toll from the violence in east Uzbekistan earlier this month (beginning 13 May) is estimated by opposition and human rights groups at up to 1,000 people. The Uzbek government says 173 people were killed, mostly what it calls "bandits."
McCain said there are several changes that are long overdue in Uzbekistan. He said the Uzbek government should allow registration of opposition political parties, cease putting economic pressure on the people, allow free media to function, and "don't go the way the Russians are."
Senator Sununu (New Hampshire) emphasized that the Uzbek government seemed to be backtracking on pledges of reform. Sununu said that compared to his first visit to Uzbekistan about three years ago, the situation in the country seemed worse now.
"At that time [three years ago] I think a lot of people were optimistic that there may be the beginnings of real reform or change in the country," Sununu said. "But today, I think the degree of economic and political repression we see is almost certainly greater."
The U.S. was slow to criticize the Uzbek government in the first days after the violence in Andijon. The Uzbek government explained the situation as having been fomented by Islamic extremists who attacked police and military forces and used civilians as human shields while attempting to seize Andijon and spread their rebellion.
The U.S. currently has hundreds of troops stationed at a military base in Uzbekistan as part of the international coalition fighting terrorism in neighboring Afghanistan. So Washington has proven sympathetic to the Uzbek government's battle against what Tashkent calls religious extremists.
The impact of the event on U.S.-Uzbek relations is the real question. Uzbekistan is not without allies, among them Russia and China. Neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have expressed, if not full support for the crackdown in Andijon, at least an understanding of why such harsh measures were needed.
U.S. Ambassador to Uzbekistan John Purnell was present at the senators' press conference and agreed that an OSCE investigation seems necessary.
"Of course, I am concerned about the impact of all these on the U.S.-Uzbek relations," he said. "There's no question about it. We will continue to urge Uzbek authorities to consider an international investigation. And, as the senator rightly points out, we think the OSCE is an excellent vehicle to participate in that kind of investigation."
The U.S. is in constant dialogue with the Uzbek authorities. However, Purnell said, the Andijon events "will undoubtedly have a real impact" on the U.S.-Uzbek relations. He did not provide further details.
The three senators are in Kyrgyzstan today as they continue a regional tour. In Bishkek, McCain said he hopes Uzbek refugees who fled the violence will not be forced to return from Kyrgyzstan.