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Central Asia: Robertson Urges Closer Ties With NATO

NATO Secretary-General George Robertson ended a two-day official visit to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, where he called for closer NATO cooperation with Central Asia to counter international terrorism. Robertson's visit precedes NATO's takeover of the command of peacekeeping operations in neighboring Afghanistan.

Prague, 11 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- NATO Secretary-General George Robertson's visit to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan -- and a second Central Asian trip scheduled for September -- are aimed at expanding ties with the region.

The steps come as the military alliance prepares to assume the leadership of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in the Afghan capital Kabul.

Following meetings yesterday with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev in Almaty, Robertson said: "Central Asia is now going to be very much part of NATO's agenda since NATO will be taking over the running of the stabilization force in Kabul in Afghanistan."

Robertson praised Kazakhstan's cooperation with NATO on dealing with security challenges. He welcomed Astana's decision to send 25 specialist troops to Iraq next month to contribute to postwar reconstruction. This will be the first time that a Central Asian republic has contributed to Western-led stabilization efforts.

"I would particularly like to congratulate Kazakhstan, President Nazarbaev, and the parliament of this country for supporting the idea of specialist Kazakh troops going to Iraq to help Poland in the division which is being supported by NATO."

The NATO chief said security in today's world depends on broader military cooperation, including more and better-trained deployable troops. The equipment and arms of the Cold War, he added, must be replaced with more advanced weapons technology.

Robertson said NATO will play a crucial role in helping Central Asia meet the challenges posed by terrorism. Some observers have worried that Central Asian governments are using the war on terror as a pretext to crack down on Islamic groups. But Robertson said security measures should not come at the expense of civil liberties.

Central Asia's already poor human rights record is widely seen as having deteriorated since some of its leaders lent their support to the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan. Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan still host hundreds of coalition troops.

In recent years, the Central Asian nations have been involved in NATO's Partnership for Peace program, including joint training and exercises.

After meeting with President Askar Akaev today in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, Robertson announced that the two sides had agreed to broaden ties.

"We live now in a new and more dangerous world. And we have a new and transformed NATO to deal with that. But what is not new is the strong relationship and deep cooperation between the Kyrgyz Republic and NATO. We have a good cooperative program and we have decided that we will increase it and deepen it."

Robertson praised the current level of cooperation between Kyrgyzstan and NATO. He emphasized the role of the Ganci Air Base at the Manas airport, near Bishkek, in operations in Afghanistan.

"Today I congratulate President Akaev and the Kyrgyz people for the robust stand that they took as part of the antiterrorist coalition in defeating and eliminating the Taliban in Afghanistan. That is what international solidarity and partnership is all about."

Kyrgyzstan, Robertson insisted, is in the front line against what he called the new threats and challenges of the 21st century -- terrorism, extremism, drugs, and organized crime.

Akaev asked the NATO leadership to support his country in strengthening security on the Kyrgyz borders. Kyrgyzstan's border with Tajikistan intersects one of the region's main drug-trafficking routes. Officials also fear it provides a possible way for Islamic groups allegedly based in remote regions of Afghanistan to stage incursions in the future.

The Kyrgyz president said modern electronic protection devices, rather than mines, should be used to secure the border. He appeared to be referring to the policy of neighboring Uzbekistan, which unilaterally established mine fields along its borders -- a decision that results in a number of deaths every year.

Speaking to Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency prior to Robertson's visit, a NATO representative said the sides would discuss ways Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan could assist the alliance's command of ISAF.

Uzbekistan in May announced its readiness to assist the NATO mission in Afghanistan by providing logistical and medical support and by helping with deliveries of humanitarian aid.

(RFE/RL's Kazakh and Kyrgyz services contributed to this report).