The State Department said Wednesday the United States will maintain dialogue with Uzbekistan despite differences over human rights and related issues. A senior U.S. envoy, Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Daniel Fried, met Uzbek President Islam Karimov in Tashkent Tuesday.
The State Department signaled that the meeting was difficult, describing the three-hour session between President Karimov and Mr. Fried as intense, serious, as well as open.
But it also said there was a mutual desire to continue contacts in a relationship that yielded close anti-terrorism cooperation after the September 2001 attacks against the United States, but soured after the political upheaval in the Uzbek city of Andijan last May.
The United States angered the Karimov government when it joined calls for an international inquiry into the events in Andijan, where human rights groups say hundreds of peaceful protesters were killed by Uzbek security forces.
Uzbekistan in July said it was giving U.S. forces 180 days to vacate an Uzbek airbase, known as K-2, being used as a staging point for operations in Afghanistan.
At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the issue of the base came up only briefly in Karimov-Fried meeting, and that the United States will comply with its obligation to end operations at K-2.
He also said the United States continues to press along with others for an independent probe of the mid-May violence, and will not make its interest in promoting human rights subservient to regional strategic interests:
"I think the message we heard back from Uzbekistan was that it is important to continue a dialogue and we again will be open to discussions with Uzbekistan. But Assistant Secretary Fried also underscored the fact that we view our strategic interests as well as our interest in promoting democracy and human rights in the region as one and the same in the case of Uzbekistan," McCormack said.
The Uzbek government contends the Andijan violence was instigated by Islamic militants and that fewer than 200 people were killed, mostly members of the security forces.
Spurning an international inquiry, it last week put 15 alleged instigators of the unrest on trial.
All the defendants pleaded guilty and some, in testimony this week, alleged the U.S. embassy in Tashkent had provided money for an anti-government uprising.
Mr. Fried Tuesday dismissed the charge as ludicrous and non-credible, while also lamenting that two U.S. non-governmental aid groups in Uzbekistan had been forced to shut down due to government pressure.
The assistant secretary, leading a team that includes Pentagon and White House officials, flew on to Kyrgystan, where Wednesday he praised the government there for sheltering refugees who fled Uzbekistan after the Andijan events.
Uzbekistan had pressed its neighbor to return the asylum seekers, and cut gas supplies to Kyrgyzstan after the Uzbeks were airlifted to Europe for resettlement by the United Nations.
Mr. Fried said the United States has sent advisers to help Kyrgystan reduce its energy vulnerability, and will support the Bishkek government in efforts to resist outside pressure that might undermine its sovereignty and political reform process.
An elected government took office in Kyrgyzstan in July, four months after longtime leader Askar Akayev was driven from office by a public revolt.
Kyrgyzstan has also given the United States access to an airbase, but has said the arrangement can continue only until the situation stabilizes in Afghanistan.