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Uzbekistan: Rumsfeld Visit Builds Hopes Of Closer Relations With U.S.

By Zamira Echanova

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made a one-day stop in Uzbekistan on 5 October and received a promise from Tashkent to make one of its air bases available for the U.S. to use for humanitarian or search-and-rescue operations in Afghanistan. RFE/RL Uzbek Service correspondent Zamira Echanova is in Tashkent and files this assessment of the U.S. defense official's visit.

Tashkent, 8 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's short visit to Uzbekistan has sparked much discussion in Tashkent over how U.S.-Uzbek relations may develop in its aftermath.

Some political observers here have even suggested that the visit means Uzbekistan may become an important ally of the U.S. in Central Asia, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt are in the Gulf and Middle East.

During the visit, Rumsfeld expressed his and U.S. President George W. Bush's appreciation to Uzbek President Islam Karimov for Tashkent's timely and generous offer of cooperation in U.S.-led efforts to fight terrorism.

At the same time, Rumsfeld emphasized that Uzbekistan's importance to the U.S. does not stem solely from the events of 11 September.

He said: "Interestingly, the interest of the U.S. in Uzbekistan, it should be well understood, precedes the events of September 11. Indeed, on my first visit to Brussels for a NATO meeting, I made a point to have a bilateral meeting with the minister of defense of Uzbekistan because of my interest and interests of our countries. Of course, it was many months before the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. And interest of the U.S. is of a long-standing relationship with this country and not something that focuses on immediate problems alone."

For his part, the Uzbek president made it clear that Tashkent will open its airspace to U.S. aircraft and will give one airbase with all its facilities for U.S. cargo planes and helicopters which carry out search and rescue operations or deliver humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. He also promised to exchange intelligence information with Washington.

But at the same time the Uzbek president drew a clear line as to where this generosity will end.

"We are against using the territory of Uzbekistan for ground operations and we are against carrying out any bombing of Afghanistan from our territory. That is what we discussed openly during the talks."

Before Rumsfeld's visit to Uzbekistan, Karimov declared that his country wanted guarantees from the U.S. in order to maintain peace in Uzbekistan. What was said during the joint news briefing and later at Karimov's press conference made it clear that Tashkent was not given any guarantees either before or during the talks with Rumsfeld.

President Karimov said: "So far there are no absolute guarantees against terrorism. But we do need guarantees that tomorrow we will not be left alone to confront these monstrous terrorist forces. And we do not want to let others use and manipulate us."

The Uzbek president said that U.S. and Uzbek military and security experts are working on a legal document which will define the mutual obligations and guarantees between the two countries. But he reiterated that so far Uzbekistan has not received any guarantees from the U.S. and that is why Tashkent is not ready to go further in negotiations and discuss possible deployment of ground troops on the territory of Uzbekistan.

Many foreign observers believe that Uzbekistan has joined the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism mainly because of its own concerns over possible invasions by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which has declared open war against Karimov's government. But the Uzbek president denied this, saying terrorism has no ethnic or religious origin, that it is everywhere in the world today and needs to be fought through united efforts by the world's governments.

"We have offered our airbase or other possibilities to the U.S. not because they want to eliminate the IMU. IMU militants are the bandits who violated the law and then fled Central Asia and found shelter in Afghanistan."

Rumsfeld's visit and his statements in Tashkent were welcomed by some residents of Uzbekistan. They believe that Uzbekistan will benefit from a new partnership with the U.S. in the defense and security fields and that this cooperation will help ease the economic hardships of the country.

Uzbek military's officers are among them. Said one: "Of course, the scale of the U.S. and Uzbek is not comparable. After the collapse of the USSR, the current state of our economy leaves a lot to be desired. That is why if the U.S. has recently started to supply military aid to Uzbekistan, we hope it will be increased (after Rumsfeld's visit). For peace and war the army needs highly developed weapons nowadays."

Still, some army officials, especially those who fought in Afghanistan with the Soviet army, are very cautious about the new military cooperation between the U.S. and Uzbekistan. They believe the fight against international terrorism worldwide is legitimate but it should be done under the auspices of the United Nations, not the U.S. government alone.

Former Soviet army Colonel Sharif Saatbaev thinks that is why it would be much preferable if instead of the U.S. secretary of defense, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan visited Uzbekistan.

"I agree that terrorism has to be fought. But it should be done by a special resolution of the UN. There are international rules and laws. Because, besides terrorists there are peaceful people in Afghanistan. I think to start a war against the Taliban is not a solution."

Rumsfeld is now back in Washington D.C. following his visit to Uzbekistan, which was part of a regional swing through the Middle East and Central Asia. White House officials have said Bush is satisfied with the cooperation being given by a number of countries in the region, including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.