A senior U.S. envoy is due to meet in Tashkent Tuesday with Uzbek President Islam Karimov on issues of contention between the two countries, including human rights and U.S. access to a key Uzbek airbase. On the mission, Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Daniel Fried is also scheduled to visit Kazakhstan and Kyrgyz Republic.
The team led by Mr. Fried includes senior officials from the Defense Department and White House National Security Council and is the highest-level U.S. mission to Uzbekistan since a feud erupted with the Karimov government over human rights in May.
Relations were strained after a mid-May uprising in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan in which human rights advocates say hundreds of people were killed by government security forces.
Uzbek authorities say Islamic militants were behind the violence and say the death toll was only about 180, mostly police and soldiers. Relations were strained amid U.S. and other outside calls for an international probe of the Andijan events.
Mr. Karimov, a former Soviet official who has run the country with an authoritarian hand since independence, rejected any such inquiry. In July, he ordered the eviction of U.S. military personnel and planes from an airbase, known as K-2, that had been a key supply link for U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
U.S. forces were given until the end of the year to vacate the base and the two sides have in recent weeks been discussing the issue of compensation for past American use of the facility.
At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said he expected the question of U.S. access to the base, and issues surrounding that, to be part of Mr. Fried's meeting with the Uzbek leader.
However, he made clear that the Bush administration is not willing to sacrifice human rights concerns for continued use of the base. "As the Secretary (of State Rice) has said, and made very clear, we believe that with respect to Uzbekistan that our strategic interests as well as our interest in promoting democracy and human rights intersect here. And certainly we are not going to sacrifice one for the other in this regard," he said.
Mr. McCormack said the United States continues to support an independent international inquiry into the Andijan events.
The Uzbek government last week began a trial of 15 alleged ringleaders of the Andijan violence that Mr. Karimov has said would reveal the whole truth of the May 13th events.
All 15 have pleaded guilty and in testimony Monday at least one of them alleged that the U.S. embassy in Tashkent had provided his group money to foment a so-called color revolution in Uzbekistan, like those in recent years in Georgia and Ukraine.
Spokesman McCormack said claims of this sort have surfaced before and, as he put it, there is just no basis for it.