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Uzbekistan: Border Town Prepares For U.S. Strikes On Afghanistan

By Zamira Echanova

The atmosphere remains quiet in the Uzbek town of Termez, located near the Afghan border. But local residents say they don't expect the peace to last. The president of Uzbekistan has agreed to allow the United States to use his country's airspace for an anticipated strike against Afghanistan, where the ruling Taliban militia is harboring suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden. Many town residents say it's only a matter of time before U.S. military planes appear in the skies overhead. RFE/RL correspondent Zamira Echanova reports from Termez.

Termez, Uzbekistan; 2 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Following security meetings late last night, Uzbek President Islam Karimov announced he has agreed to allow the United States to use his country's airspace in launching strikes against Afghanistan.

Uzbekistan shares a 137-kilometer border with Afghanistan, and Uzbek cooperation is widely considered key to any U.S.-led military campaign.

The announcement, which followed closed-door negotiations between Washington and Tashkent, came with little explanation of the conditions of the agreement or U.S. military intent. But for the residents of the Uzbek border town of Termez, Karimov's statement delivered a clear message: A U.S.-led attack on neighboring Afghanistan will begin soon.

Virtually overnight, Termez has become a focus of attention as the world awaits a U.S. response to last month's terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. The attacks are believed to have been organized by Saudi-born militant Osama bin Laden, who is living in Afghanistan under the protection of the ruling Taliban. Journalists have flooded Termez in anticipation of U.S.-led air strikes against its southern neighbor, and residents of the town talk of little else.

A U.S.-led attack on Afghanistan would have a direct bearing on Termez and its roughly 100,000 residents. Termez is located just 60 kms from Mazar-i-Sharif, a key Afghan city captured by the Taliban in 1997. Taliban military bases are visible on the southern bank of the Amydarya River, which marks the border between the two countries. Such proximity makes Termez a logical stronghold for U.S. military forces if a campaign against Afghanistan is launched.

In Termez today, a strong southern wind made the air thick with dust, driving many residents inside. One young student, sitting in a computer lab, said: "Maybe this wind is somehow connected to the U.S. campaign against Afghanistan. Maybe right now the U.S. planes are flying over our heads and bombing Afghanistan."

The occasional sound of planes overhead has led some to wonder if attacks had already begun. But no official explanation has been given as to what kind of planes they are.

Uzbek officials denied a report yesterday by Russian NTV television that a U.S. Hercules cargo plane had landed at the Karshi air base a few hundred kilometers from Termez. But sources at the Defense Ministry, speaking to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity, said U.S. planes had landed at Karshi and that Uzbek military bases are prepared for any refueling or emergency assistance the U.S. may require. U.S. military experts are said to have completed logistical studies of air bases at Karshi and Kakaida, which is located 25 kilometers outside Termez.

Officials at Kakaida, a former Soviet air base, refused to comment on any possible activity there.

Local officers say they have no specific information about what form U.S.-Uzbek military cooperation against Afghanistan might take. One local colonel, who commands ground troops near the Kakaida air base, said he gets most of his information from the Russian press:

"We get all our information from television. Nobody is giving us any additional information."

Termez officials have promised to keep residents informed of any imminent arrival of U.S. troops. But for now the situation remains quiet.

A team of French archaeologists that has been working in the old section of Termez, located right on the Afghan border, says it has received no warning to stop its work. The head of the team, Dr. Pierre Leriche, says his group has been contacted by friends and family in France asking them to come home.

But he says they will not give up their research until the local government warns them the situation has become too dangerous. "In any case, if there is any problem, [local officials] will be very prudent with us and they will tell us we should stop. I'm absolutely sure [they would do so]. So far they are very kind with us and they haven't spoken about stopping the work."

Some students who spoke with RFE/RL said they hoped the U.S. would launch a campaign against Afghanistan and free the Afghan people of the ruling Taliban militia. Even among the town's religious Muslims there is little hint of anti-American sentiment. Djorakhon-hadji Tursunov, the Imam of the main mosque in old Termez, says Muslims here support a decisive action against terrorism:

"America's war is not against Muslims, but terrorists. You have seen how many innocent people were killed. In Islam, to kill innocent people is the greatest sin. There should be no place for terrorists among us."

The U.S. military is familiar with Uzbekistan's military, and the U.S. has taken seriously threats posed to the country by the extremist Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. That group has ties to the Taliban and the U.S. has put it on a list of dangerous terrorist groups.