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Uzbekistan To Quit Russian-Led Economic Bloc

ALMATY (Reuters) -- Uzbekistan plans to quit a Russia-dominated economic bloc in a move emphasizing its efforts to mend relations with the West, a diplomatic source has said.

Once a staunch U.S. ally, the gas-rich Central Asian state broke off its ties with the West in 2005 after it was condemned internationally for allowing state troops to fire on protesters.

Uzbekistan moved closer to Russia in response, joining a number of pro-Moscow groups such as the Eurasian Economic Community (Eurasec), but has sought a rapprochement with the West again over past months.

On November 12, a diplomatic source in Kazakhstan, also part of Eurasec, told Reuters that Uzbekistan had already notified other member states that it was pulling out.

"They've sent around a notification. There's been some talk about their withdrawal for some time," said the Kazakh source who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.

Uzbekistan's Foreign Ministry declined comment.

Russia has used Eurasec, a largely emblematic organization which unites Belarus, Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, to underline its clout in the former Soviet region.

Separately, Russia's Interfax news agency quoted a diplomatic source in Moscow as saying that Uzbekistan had long been at odds with Eurasec's operations.

"We are not too worked up about it and we do not intend to make too much fuss about it," the source said. "Tashkent has long said this organization is not very effective."

Uzbekistan's move follows last month's decision by the European Union to lift most of its sanctions against Uzbekistan imposed after the Andijon crackdown in May 2005.

Diplomats in Tashkent have said Uzbekistan wants to strike more balance by maintaining pragmatic relations with Russia while seeking better ties with the West to promote much-needed foreign investment to spur its stagnant economy.

In Andijon, Uzbek officials said 187 people died during police action against armed Islamist extremists, while independent witnesses have said hundreds of unarmed civilians, including women and children, were killed and quickly buried.