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US May Cut Uzbekistan Aid Over Andijon Inquiry

The Bush administration indicated Wednesday it may again cut U.S. aid to Uzbekistan over that government's refusal to allow an international inquiry into the killing of protesters two months ago in Andijon. The United Nations said earlier this week that grave human rights abuses were committed in the May 13 events.

Officials here say the Uzbek government faces the likelihood of cuts in direct U.S. aid if it is not responsive to calls for a transparent inquiry into the Andijon events, though they are downplaying reports there could be an early confrontation with Tashkent authorities over the issue.

The United States and others in the international community including the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have pressed for an international probe of the events in Andijon, where hundreds of Uzbek civilians were reported killed by security forces.

The Uzbek government of President Islam Karimov has resisted the pressure, and the Washington Post reported Wednesday the Bush administration was preparing what it described as a last-ditch warning to Tashkent authorities to accept the inquiry, or face the prospect of political upheaval.

At a news briefing, acting State Department Spokesman Thomas Casey said the United States has been making its concerns known to Uzbek authorities at the highest levels and will continue to do so, though he said he was unaware of any pending change in U.S. policy or tactics.

At the same time, however, the spokesman raised the prospect of reductions in direct U.S. aid to the Uzbek government for a second straight year, if the Bush administration cannot certify to Congress that it has met conditions on protecting human rights.

"We do have a certification process in place for our bilateral assistance to Uzbekistan," said Mr. Casey. "Last year, we made determination that Uzbekistan had not made sufficient progress on the criteria for that certification to allow the full amount of aid to move forward. There's no decision that has been taken on that this year. But obviously how the government of Uzbekistan responds to this issue is certainly a factor in that decision-making."

About one-third of the nearly $60 million in U.S. aid allocated to Uzbekistan this year has been held back pending a certification to Congress on human rights.

A State Department official who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity said it would be hard to conceive of the full aid amount being delivered unless there is some resolution to the impasse over an Andijon investigation.

The Bush administration withheld several million dollars in direct aid to Uzbek agencies last year, prompting what the official said were some minor human rights gestures from the Karimov government.

Much of the money, largely for military training and credits, was re-directed to non-governmental organizations.

A United Nations report issued earlier this week and citing eyewitness testimony, said grave human rights abuses were committed in Andijon when Uzbek security forces fired indiscriminately on crowds of demonstrators, killing hundreds.

The U.N. report also called for an international investigation, which Mr. Karimov has firmly opposed.

Spokesman Casey said that having a transparent inquiry and accountability for what occurred is not just something the international community wants, but also in the interest of Uzbekistan's future stability, prosperity and relations with the rest of the world.

The United States and Uzbekistan have cooperated closely in the war on terrorism, with U.S. forces having use of an Uzbek airbase at Karshi-Khanabad to support operations in Afghanistan.

The Washington Post Wednesday suggested a split within the administration, with defense officials stressing the need to retain access to the base, and the State Department advocating a harder line on Uzbek human rights.

The senior official who spoke here however said upholding democracy and human rights, and U.S. security interests in Uzbekistan are not incompatible.

He said neither the State Department nor the Pentagon wants to see an Uzbekistan subject to political upheaval and turmoil.