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ALMATY (Reuters) -- A European human rights watchdog has praised Uzbekistan's progress in human rights and said it would step up cooperation with the Central Asian state, long criticzed for rights abuses.

Rights groups say the former Soviet republic bordering Afghanistan has jailed thousands of dissidents and political foes of President Islam Karimov, a charge the government denies.

But this year Tashkent has taken several steps to mend its strained ties with the West, raising hopes for dialogue on human rights and democracy.

Janez Lenarcic, the Director of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), part of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), visited Tashkent on September 8 and met Uzbek Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov and other officials, the OSCE said.

"We are encouraged by the progress made recently in implementing some of the commitments Uzbekistan has adopted as a participating State of the OSCE, including efforts to improve detention conditions, the release of some human rights defenders, and the abolition of the death penalty," it quoted Lenarcic as saying.

"Our talks here have shown clearly that there is a willingness on both sides to work together more closely in the future to strengthen Uzbekistan's compliance with its international commitments."

Lenarcic said the OSCE was ready to send a mission to assess requirements in Tashkent in the near future "to determine the format of a possible ODIHR involvement" in observing parliamentary elections in Uzbekistan scheduled for December.

Uzbek officials could not be reached for comment.

Uzbekistan expelled a U.S. air base and severed nearly all contacts with the West in 2005 following strong criticism over its handling of a riot in the town of Andijon where, according to witnesses, government troops killed hundreds of protesters.

But it allowed the transit of nonmilitary supplies for U.S. troops in Afghanistan this year, praised U.S. President Barack Obama's address to Muslims and intensified diplomatic contacts with Western nations.
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