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US Defends Human Rights Pressure on Uzbekistan

The Bush administration Monday defended its advocacy of human rights in Uzbekistan, even though it has apparently cost the United States access to a key airbase used to supply U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The Uzbek government said late last week it was terminating the base agreement.

Officials here say the United States will go on pressing the Uzbek government of President Islam Karimov on human rights, despite tensions reflected in the decision to end the base agreement.

Uzbekistan told the United States in a diplomatic note Friday it was exercising its right to terminate U.S. access to the base at Karshi-Khanabad effective in 180 days.

The action followed by a matter of hours a U.N. airlift to Romania of more than 400 Uzbeks who had taken refuge in Kyrgyzstan following violence May 13 violence in the Uzbek city of Andijan.

The United States had strongly supported efforts to find refuge abroad for the Uzbeks, despite pressure on Kyrgyzstan by Mr. Karimov that they be forcibly returned.

At a news briefing, Acting State Department Spokesman Thomas Casey said the United States took up the cause of the asylum-seekers because it was the right thing do so, just as, he said, it continues to urge an international inquiry into the events in Andijan.

"I can assure you that the United States is going to continue to press our concerns for human rights and democracy in Uzbekistan," he said. "Democracy, human rights, economic reform, military cooperation, are all part of our relationship. I think we've said previously that we do not view any of these elements as inimicable to one another. But we're going to continue to have a dialogue with the government of Uzbekistan. We certainly expect that the dialogue will continue over time, regardless of the status of the base."

Uzbekistan opened the base at Karshi-Khanabad, or K-2, to U.S. forces after the September 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, and it became a key staging point for operations in Afghanistan.

Uzbek officials began restricting U.S. flights to K-2 in June amid friction over the Andijan events, and spokesman Casey said Friday's closure notice was not unexpected.

Mr. Casey said the Bush administration continues to withhold $22 million in aid earmarked for Uzbekistan because of human rights concerns.

He said whether the Tashkent government accepts an international probe of the Andijan events will be a factor in whether the funds are delivered.

People walk outside burning movie theater in downtown Andijan
Human rights activists say as many as 750 people were killed when Uzbek security forces fired on crowds of protesters in the city. Uzbek officials say fewer than 200 people were killed in unrest triggered by Islamic militants.

The United States applauded last week's airlift of the Uzbek asylum-seekers. But spokesman Casey said U.S. officials remain concerned about 15 refugees still in Kyrgyzstan, and believe they would be in "serious jeopardy" if sent home.

A Kyrgyz official said Monday they would be repatriated because of evidence of involvement in criminal activity. Uzbekistan maintains that instigators of the Andijan violence were among those who fled into Kyrgyzstan.