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Rice Defends US Approach to Uzbekistan on Human Rights


US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Tuesday the United States is pressing for facts in the political unrest in Uzbekistan late last week that may have left hundreds of people dead. She says the Bush administration has been a persistent critic of President Islam Karimov's human rights record despite cooperation on anti-terrorism issues.

The Bush administration has credited the Karimov government with key support in the war on terrorism, including allowing U.S. forces to use an airbase to support operations in Afghanistan.

But at a press event late Tuesday with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, Ms. Rice sharply rejected the idea the administration has looked the other way when it comes to human rights abuses by Uzbek authorities, and said Washington has pressed for reform in no uncertain terms.

In particular, she said the United States is looking for a very open accounting by the Karimov government of the circumstances of last week's events in the city of Andijon, where Uzbek opposition sources say hundreds of people were killed when security forces fired on demonstrators:

"It is quite clear that a lot of people have lost their lives, and that is always a cause for concern because it should just not be the case that innocent people lose their lives. Nobody is asking any government to deal with terrorists. That's not the issue. The issue though is that it is a society that needs openness, it needs reform. And again I think if you look at the record, you'll find that we've raised that with the government of Karimov for quite some time," she said.

Uzbek authorities have denied that security forces fired on unarmed protestors and say the casualties -- a fraction of the more than 700 claimed by the opposition - were mainly terrorists.

The State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher earlier Tuesday called the violence deeply disturbing and said Tashkent-based diplomats from the United States and other countries were trying to ascertain the facts of the disputed events.

At a weekend news conference, Mr. Karimov depicted his government's opponents as Islamic militants and said attempts to develop democracy would only play into the hands of extremists.

Secretary Rice responded Monday as she flew back to Washington from a visit to Iraq, saying the fundamental problem in Uzbekistan is the absence of what she termed pressure valves that would come with a more open political system.