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Uzbekistan: U.S. To Have Limited Use Of Air Bases

Tashkent, 5 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Uzbek President Islam Karimov has dampened U.S. hopes that Uzbek air bases could be used to stage military raids on neighboring Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Speaking in Tashkent today after meeting visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Karimov said U.S.-led forces will be permitted to use one air base in his country -- but only for humanitarian or search-and-rescue operations.

Karimov said his country would not allow the U.S. to stage military attacks from Uzbek soil.

The talks were held behind closed doors and likely centered on the extent of cooperation the U.S. can expect from Uzbekistan in the U.S.'s declared war on terrorism, following last month's attacks on New York and Washington.

Earlier this week, Karimov agreed to open his country's airspace to U.S. military forces, but it wasn't clear what this cooperation would entail. Now it appears that any Uzbek involvement will be limited.

A U.S. defense official traveling with Rumsfeld, meanwhile, said today that 1,000 troops from the U.S. 10th Mountain Division are on their way to Uzbekistan. It's not clear yet where those soldiers will be based or what they will do.

Afghanistan has been targeted because its ruling Taliban militia is sheltering suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden is believed to have masterminded the 11 September terror attacks in New York and Washington that killed some 5,000 people.

Before arriving in Uzbekistan, Rumsfeld visited Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Egypt in a bid to enlist Islamic support for a U.S.-led coalition against terrorism. Rumsfeld flies to Turkey today after leaving Tashkent.

Earlier this week, Rumsfeld told leaders of the three Islamic countries that the coalition and any possible U.S. military strikes in Afghanistan would be aimed only at fighting terrorism and would not be an attack on Islam.

Speaking yesterday after meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Rumsfeld said:

"It is very helpful when leaders such as the Sultan of Oman and President Mubarak speak out publicly, and religious leaders in their countries speak out publicly, and point out, as so many have now, that terrorism is not something that has anything at all to do with Islam."

Mubarak gave his support to the international coalition but said his country will not provide soldiers for any military action. Rumsfeld said before the talks that he was not seeking military cooperation but rather Egyptian assistance in gathering intelligence on Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network.

While in Oman and Saudi Arabia, Rumsfeld played down the possibility of involving either nation in any military action. The U.S. maintains troops in both countries, but both nations are uneasy about hosting raids against other Islamic countries.

Diplomats said Rumsfeld reassured Riyadh that Washington is not seeking the use of its military facilities for an offensive against Afghanistan.

The presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia is said to be a key grievance of bin Laden's, who charges that the Americans are desecrating the land of Mecca and the home of Islam's holiest places.

Rumsfeld's visit to Uzbekistan underscores the newfound importance that country holds for the U.S.-led war on terrorism. Uzbekistan shares a 130-kilometer border with Afghanistan and is the only former Soviet Central Asian state deemed to have the military infrastructure -- including air bases -- to support the raids.

But the visit also highlights the uneasy alliances the U.S. is forging in its fight against terrorism.

The former Soviet republic, which became an independent state in 1991, has come in for substantial criticism by governments and rights groups for its poor record on supporting democracy and human rights.

Tashkent has been fighting an Islamic insurgency on its own soil for the past four years, and international rights groups accuse authorities of using the insurgency as a pretext to arrest and convict thousands of independent Muslims.

Ahead of Rumsfeld's visit, the New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch called on the U.S. to make clear to Uzbekistan that its new relationship should not be seen by Tashkent as a green light to commit further human rights abuses.

Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement that if the United States is going to ally itself with Uzbekistan, it must avoid aligning itself with what he called Uzbekistan's brutal policies.

Malinowski says Uzbekistan has its own reasons for countering Osama bin Laden that are separate from those of the U.S. He says the U.S. shouldn't have to buy Uzbekistan's cooperation with what he called "unconditional rewards."

(The Uzbek Service's Zamira Echanova contributed to this report.)

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.