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EU Ready To End Sanctions On Uzbekistan

Uzbek President Islam Karimov

Uzbek President Islam Karimov

BRUSSELS (Reuters) -- The European Union is preparing to lift sanctions against Uzbekistan, despite concerns about human rights in the former Soviet republic, EU diplomats said.

They said member states had agreed the EU should not renew an arms embargo, the last of the sanctions imposed over a crackdown on protesters in the town of Andizhan in 2005, and EU foreign ministers were expected to approve the move next week.

The decision is sure to anger rights groups which say there has been insufficient progress on human rights in the Central Asian state, a potential source of EU gas imports.

"There is agreement that the restrictive measures will not be renewed," one EU diplomat said.

Others said the EU had seen progress on human rights and wanted to encourage the Uzbek authorities to carry out more improvements.

The Union decided to lift visa bans on top Uzbek officials last October to reward what it said was progress in human rights but kept in place the arms embargo. This was the last of the sanctions imposed over the Andizhan crackdown, in which witnesses say government troops killed hundreds of protesters.

The EU has been trying to improve ties with Central Asian states to help secure future energy supplies and diversify away from Russian gas and oil.

Uzbekistan, which borders Afghanistan, has shown signs of wanting better relations with Europe and allowed the transit of non-military supplies for U.S. troops in Afghanistan this year.

But it rebuffed calls to do more to protect human rights during talks with the EU last month, when it told Brussels to improve its own rights record.

Rights groups say Uzbekistan has jailed thousands of dissidents and political foes of President Islam Karimov, a charge the government denies.