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Uzbekistan: U.S. Signs Security Agreements In Tashkent

By Bruce Pannier and Zamira Echanova

Prague, 26 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S.-Uzbek joint commission finished its two-day session yesterday in Tashkent with the signing of several agreements, most notably on security issues.

The U.S. delegation was led by Stephen Sestanovich, the State Department special envoy for the Newly Independent States. The Uzbek delegation was headed by Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov. This was the second time the commission has met.

Uzbekistan sees the U.S. as a major ally and has publicly supported the U.S. position on matters as wide ranging as the embargo against Cuba and attacks on Iraq and the former Yugoslavia.

Sestanovich said at a press conference following the meetings that the two sides "have many common interests," though he said there were some disagreements.

He said the two sides had signed a consular agreement that will facilitate visits by citizens of one country to the other. He didn't elaborate on the agreement but said it offers easier travel between the U.S. and Uzbekistan than between the U.S. and any other country in the region.

He said two other agreements had been signed: one on combating terrorism and the other on cooperation between the Pentagon and Uzbekistan's Defense Ministry.

Uzbekistan has pressing security concerns owing in part to its policy of distancing itself from Russia and its proximity to unrest in Afghanistan.

The country has also seen a recent increase in attacks blamed on religious fundamentalism. A bomb attack in Tashkent in February killed 15 people.

The U.S. and Uzbekistan cooperate formally as part of NATO's Partnership for Peace program and U.S. soldiers have taken part in exercises in Central Asia the past two years. This summer, troops from Uzbekistan and other Central Asian states (the Central Asian Peacekeeping Battalion) will travel to the U.S. for NATO exercises.

Sestanovich said details for this and other forms of cooperation were discussed in the meetings:

"We agreed on the importance of increasing exchanges between our countries. In our meeting in the committee on defense cooperation, we reviewed our cooperation in the Central Asian Peacekeeping Battalion. The American side has expressed its readiness to work with the Uzbek government on the important task of military reform. We've expressed our interest in working with the Uzbek government on programs to enhance border security. In our political committee, we discussed cooperation in the diplomatic area and ... the need to cooperate against terrorism."

The commission also discussed political reform as Uzbekistan prepares to hold parliamentary elections this year. The country has come under increasing criticism for stifling the political opposition and the media. Sestanovich said these topics were on the agenda.

"We discussed the importance of creating modern political institutions. We discussed the basis these institutions have in free and fair elections, the free activity of political parties, independent media and religious liberty."

Sestanovich says there are no plans for Uzbek president Islam Karimov to visit the U.S. anytime soon but adds Karimov was just in the U.S. (in April for NATO's 50th anniversary).

Sestanovich also said there are no plans to establish a U.S. military base in Uzbekistan. He said though that U.S. experts will help clean up a Soviet military facility at Nukus, where biological weapons were once developed.