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Uzbek Leader Quells Russian Gas Fears, Secures Deal

Uzbek President Islam Karimov (center) and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev (right), visit a local market in Tashkent.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov (center) and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev (right), visit a local market in Tashkent.

TASHKENT (Reuters) -- Uzbekistan has pledged to support a new trans-Russian gas pipeline, easing Moscow's fears it would succumb to European pressure to bypass Russia with its energy supplies and reduce its influence in the region.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov told his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, that Uzbekistan had offered to sell 16 billion cubic meters of gas to Russia this year and could double that amount within the next decade.

"We are ready to work with Russia on the construction of new pipelines that would enable us to boost exports and transit of gas," Karimov told reporters in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent.

The former Soviet republic has troubled Moscow by seeking better ties with the West. Analysts say Medvedev's visit is part of a push to reassert Russian influence in the region.

The European Union, alarmed by a two-week disruption in Russian gas supplies via Ukraine this month, wants Central Asia to feed its Nabucco pipeline project, which would bypass Russia. It would also use gas from the Caspian.

But Karimov said Uzbekistan was happy with a new price formula offered by Moscow and would back the new pipeline.

The two pipelines are not mutually exclusive, and Uzbekistan last year started work on another route to China.

Technical Limitations

Gazprom, Russia's state-controlled gas export monopoly, buys Central Asian gas and sells it on to Europe. Moscow wants to protect its control over these flows and relies on a steady supply of Uzbek, Turkmen, and Kazakh natural gas.

Karimov said actual sales of Uzbek gas to Russia this year would be lower than the 16 billion cubic meters offered due to technical limitations.

But he said Uzbekistan could export twice as much in future, once Russia's second-largest oil firm, LUKoil, starts producing 16 billion cubic meters of gas per year there by 2015.

Karimov, who withdrew Uzbekistan from a Moscow-led regional economic cooperation group, assured Medvedev he saw the Kremlin as the key player in Central Asia.

"Russia is a country which has always been present in this region and a country which has defined politics and the balance of forces here," he said.

Uzbekistan became Moscow's closest ally in the region after the West imposed sanctions in 2005 in response to a security crackdown in the Uzbek town of Andijon. The Uzbek authorities said they were putting down an uprising by armed militant Islamists, but witnesses said many of the victims were unarmed civilians.

Tashkent, which denied civilian deaths, evicted a U.S. military air base. But after some sanctions were lifted, U.S. troops were allowed to use another Uzbek air base.