Russian President Vladimir Putin and Uzbek President Islam Karimov have announced they will increase cooperation in the oil and gas industries. The pledge came during the Russian leader's first visit to the region since Russian-Uzbek relations became strained over Uzbekistan's support for some U.S. policies that Russia opposes.

At a joint news conference in Uzbekistan's second city, Samarkand, President Putin told reporters that his talks with President Karimov had produced tangible results, especially in the area of oil and gas cooperation.

Mr. Putin said that Russia is interested in using pipelines running through Central Asia more effectively to maximize capacity. He characterized the prospects for this as very good and said the leading Russian gas company, Gazprom, fully supports the effort.

Russia has been eager to reassert its traditional influence in Central Asia and counter what it sees as U.S. attempts to build pipelines bypassing Russia.

President Karimov said that on oil and gas issues, Russia and Uzbekistan have "no differences." Mr. Karimov also stressed the importance of Russia's role in Central Asia - a role he said he hopes will be strengthened.

Mr. Karimov said both Russia and Uzbekistan have made mistakes in the past regarding their relationship. But he said an old friend is always better than a new one.

Ties between Uzbekistan and Russia were strained as Uzbekistan aligned itself more closely with the United States after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Uzbekistan allowed American troops to be based on its soil for the first time, to assist in the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan.

Uzbekistan also was a supporter of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, which Russia strongly opposed.

During nearly three hours of talks Monday, the two leaders also discussed anti-terrorism efforts, post-war reconstruction for Iraq, and the September summit of former Soviet states.

Meanwhile, a small group of protesters gathered outside the Russian embassy in Tashkent to call for the release of an exiled opposition leader and publisher, who was arrested in Moscow last month on drug charges. International human rights groups say the opposition leader's arrest was politically motivated and they are also calling for his release.