|US Troops at Karshi-Khanabad airbase, Uzbekistan|
Uzbek officials have formally terminated an agreement allowing the United States to use an air base in southeastern Uzbekistan, ending a nearly four-year-old deal under which the United States was able to provide support for U.S. operations in Afghanistan. The termination follows criticism from the United States and other countries of Uzbek President Islam Karimov over the reported killing of hundreds of civilians by Uzbek security forces in May.
A State Department spokesman said Saturday that its embassy in Tashkent received a diplomatic note late last week from the Uzbek government, terminating the agreement to use the so-called K2 airfield. The Washington Post newspaper reports the military has 180 days to leave the Karshi-Khanabad airbase, but U.S. officials have not confirmed a timetable.
An estimated 800 personnel now work at the K2 airbase, which since October 2001 has been a hub for military and humanitarian supplies that are flown or trucked overland into Afghanistan.
In a news conference earlier this month, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Richard Myers said the base in Uzbekistan and one near Kyrgyzstan's capital city play an important role in regional security.
"Central Asia is important to the United States for several reasons, not just for operations in Afghanistan," said Mr. Myers. "It's important to us for lots of reasons. Security and stability in Central Asia is an important concept and those that can bring security and stability ought to be welcome in Central Asia."
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld traveled to Central Asia this week and won assurances from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan that U.S. forces would continue to have access to facilities in their countries.
Mr. Rumsfeld did not meet with Uzbek officials, but he said the military is prepared if Uzbekistan bars use of the K2 air base.
Uzbek officials have tightened restrictions on the K2 base in recent months, barring night flights and limiting the use of some heavy transport aircraft.
The moves followed strong criticism from the United States and other Western nations of President Karimov and calls for a formal inquiry into deadly clashes between Uzbek security forces and civilians in the city of Andijan in May. The United Nations has called the incident a mass killing.
"The trigger was Uzbek anger at U.S. criticism of the Uzbek government for the Uzbek government's failure to agree to an independent international inquiry into what happened in Andijan," said Martha Brill Olcott, a central Asian expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "To say that the U.S. leadership and the Uzbek leadership don't see eye to eye with one another today is an understatement. It's probably the tensest point in U.S.-Uzbek relations any time since the existence of an independent Uzbekistan. I don't know that the Uzbek regime would have wanted the base removed if Andijan had not occurred."
On Friday, the United Nations said some 440 Uzbek refugees who had fled to Kyrgyzstan following the Andijan violence had been flown to Romania. Uzbekistan says the refugees are criminals who should be repatriated.