A US lawmaker is warning Uzbekistan that the United States may have to reevaluate its military ties to that country if violence continues in that Central Asian republic.
Uzbekistan has been a key ally in the war on terrorism, allowing the United States to use an air base to support operations in Afghanistan.
But the violence that broke out in the former Soviet republic last week has drawn concern and condemnation from U.S. officials.
Opposition activists say soldiers called to disperse an anti-government rally in Andizhan fired indiscriminately on the crowd, killing, by some counts, as many as 700 people.
The government says 169 people died in what it describes as a clash between Islamic radicals seeking to overthrow the government and law enforcement officers.
In the wake of the violence, one U.S. congressman says the United States may have to reassess its ties with Uzbekistan if the situation there does not improve."If peaceful protests spread throughout the country and Uzbek forces respond indiscriminately with deadly violence, the United States would be forced to reevaluate its strategic partnership with Uzbekistan," said Congressman Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey.
Congressman Smith spoke at a hearing of the Helsinki Commission, a U.S. government agency that monitors the implementation of the 1975 Helsinki Accords.
His comments come a day after the head of the U.S. Central Command, General John Abizaid, told reporters the U.S. military has scaled back operations in Uzbekistan since the violence broke out.
General Abizaid said, in his words, "We have to be cautious about how we are operating." He said the decision was not a signal to the Uzbek government.
The United States has joined international calls for an independent inquiry into the violence. Those calls were echoed Thursday at the Helsinki briefing."An important first step is the formation of an international commission to investigate what occurred in Andizhan. This is a project worthy of using considerable back door diplomacy to gain Uzbek acquiescence," said Martha Olcott, who is with the Carnegie Endowment for Peace.
Others at the hearing urged the Uzbek government to address the root causes of unrest in the country by developing a more open and pluralistic society."I urge them to launch serious reforms, to democratize the political system and liberalize the economy, and provide human rights for the individuals of Uzbekistan," said Senator Sam Brownback is a Kansas Republican and chairman of the Helsinki Commission. "OSCE (Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe) and the U.S. should require the government of Uzbekistan to start democratic reforms, in particular the registration of opposition parties," agreed Abdurahim Polat, chairman of the opposition Uzbek party, Birlik.
A recent State Department human rights report called Uzbekistan's record on the issue very poor and accused authorities, among other things, of restricting press freedoms and stifling public criticism.