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Senior U.S. Diplomat Stresses Washington's Commitment To Cooperation With Central Asia

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Alice Wells, principal deputy assistant secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs at the U.S. State Department

DUSHANBE -- A senior U.S. diplomat has urged Central Asian nations to deepen their cooperation to boost economic opportunities and strengthen security in the region.

Alice Wells, principal deputy assistant secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs at the U.S. State Department, told RFE/RL in a January 7 interview that Washington remains committed to working with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan through the so-called C5+1 format.

"I think there is a tremendous potential for C5 cooperation both within Central Asian countries but also with the United States and with the neighborhood," Wells said.

Wells noted that "more opportunities" for such cooperation came after Shavkat Mirziyoev took over the region's most populous country, Uzbekistan, in 2016 following the death of Islam Karimov, whose 25-year rule was mainly isolationist.

"And we were actively seeking to take advantage of the opportunities to open borders and to [engage with] one another," Wells said, adding that "there are also common counterterrorism concerns, particularly as countries of Central Asia are courageously taking up the challenge of bringing back foreign terrorist fighters."

Answering a question regarding Tajik Foreign Ministry's ongoing reluctance to grant full accreditation to correspondents from RFE/RL's Tajik Service in Dushanbe, locally known as Radio Ozodi, Wells said "we strongly believe that Radio Liberty [RFE/RL] reporters should receive accreditation...in a timely manner."

"We believe the role of independent media is critical in the development of any country... and particularly as Tajikistan goes into an election cycle with parliamentary and presidential elections [in 2020], having an active and open debates is particularly important," she added.

The Tajik Foreign Ministry on October 31 failed to fully grant the accreditation requests of 18 RFE/RL journalists and staff members whose credentials have been withheld by the ministry or were set to expire on November 1.

The ministry granted partial accreditation to seven journalists -- six for six months each and one for three months -- while continuing to withhold it from 11 others.

At a press conference with journalists prior to her interview with RFE/RL, Wells said that the issue of press freedom was among the issues she discussed with top Tajik officials.

"In my meetings today, I emphasized the importance of an independent media, including full accreditation for Radio Ozodi employees. It’s important that the Tajik people have access to independent media outlets such as Asia-Plus, Akhbor, and Radio Ozodi," Wells said.

Wells spoke at the end of the two-day visit to the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, and more than a month after a State Department official said the United States had "intensified" its bilateral diplomatic engagements with the five Central Asian nations.

The increase in U.S. diplomatic contacts comes as China’s economic and political influence in Central Asia grows and it seeks to strong arm those nations to return asylum seekers from China's northwestern region of Xinjiang, a major concern for the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump.

The greater interest also comes as Washington seeks to exit its 18-year war in Afghanistan, which also borders Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Xinjiang.

The post-Soviet countries of Central Asia, with mainly Muslim populations, have been implementing state programs to bring home citizens who had joined the Islamic State extremist group in Syria and Iraq.

"We are committed to the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan. We are committed to Afghanistan never be used as a platform for terrorism, whether it is against Tajikistan, against the United States, against our partners," Wells said, stressing that Washington will continue to assist Tajikistan, which borders Afghanistan, with security-related matters.

According to the Tajik Foreign Ministry, the sides also discussed bilateral ties, security in Afghanistan and the region, and "focused on the issue of the further strengthening of the guarding of the Tajik-Afghan border...as well as terrorism, extremism, radicalism, and illegal drug trafficking."

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