Prague, 25 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld arrived today in Kazakhstan's capital, Astana, following a visit to neighboring Uzbekistan.
Rumsfeld held talks with Kazakh Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov, Defense Minister Mukhtar Altynbaev, and Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev about expanding military relations. "We talked about the U.S. support for Kazakhstan's sovereignty and independence and our important military-to-military relationship," Rumsfeld said after the meeting.
He said Washington is committed to ensuring the security of Kazakhstan's portion of the oil-rich Caspian Sea, adding that such security is important not only for Kazakhstan but for the world. Rumsfeld also asked Kazakh officials to become more actively involved in NATO's Partnership for Peace program. "We talked about the relationship that Kazakhstan has with NATO's Partnership for Peace program and how important we believe that is, and that we are grateful for the strong and growing relationship we have and for the friendship and for the steadfastness of the Kazakh people," Rumsfeld said.
Relations with Washington have strengthened since 2001, when Kazakhstan offered the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan the use of an airport for emergency landings and refueling. Last August, Astana sent about 30 peacekeeping troops to Iraq to help with demining and restoring water supplies. It is the only Central Asian nation to do so. "Kazakhstan is an important country in the global war on terror and has been wonderfully helpful in Iraq, and I came here to personally say 'thank you' and express our appreciation," Rumsfeld said.
The Associated Press quoted the Kazakh Defense Ministry as saying the two countries signed a five-year cooperation plan last September that envisages the delivery of helicopters, military cargo aircraft, and ships for Kazakhstan's Caspian Sea forces. Under the plan, the United States will also reportedly supply equipment for Kazakh troops and provide antiterrorism training.
Interfax quoted James Kenney of the U.S. Embassy in Kazakhstan as stressing today that Washington is not planning to create a military base on the Caspian Sea. He noted that the United States is providing Kazakh border troops with military and civil assistance in order to strengthen security in the region.
Of the five Central Asian nations, Kazakhstan received the most U.S. aid last year -- $92 million. More than half -- $49 million -- was targeted for security and law-enforcement programs.
During his visit to Uzbekistan yesterday, Rumsfeld said U.S.-Uzbek military relations are "growing stronger every month." He praised the Uzbek leadership for supporting the U.S.-led military operations in Afghanistan. "We have benefited greatly in our efforts in the global war on terror and in Afghanistan from the wonderful cooperation we've received from the government of Uzbekistan," he said.
In 2001, Tashkent allowed U.S. forces to use the Khanabad air base in southern Uzbekistan for military operations in Afghanistan. In an interview with the Associated Press on 21 February, Uzbek Foreign Minister Sadyk Safaev left open the possibility of a long-term U.S. presence in the country. Rumsfeld said the U.S. does not intend to establish permanent bases in the region.
Asked about Uzbekistan's poor human rights record, Rumsfeld said the issue had been discussed but that human rights are one side of a multifaceted relationship the United States has with the republic. He said relations between sovereign nations tend not to be based on what he called a "single pillar." He said such relations involve economic, political, security, and human rights issues.
Rumsfeld is due to travel to Afghanistan tomorrow. He has also made stops in Iraq and Kuwait as part of his regional tour.
(RFE/RL's Kazakh and Uzbek services contributed to this report.)