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Uzbek President Heads to China for Visit

Associated Press | May 24, 2005

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan -- Making his first trip abroad since a bloody crackdown on protesters, Uzbek President Islam Karimov left Tuesday on a visit to China, which has provided a rare note of support for the authoritarian Central Asian leader.

Karimov, who has rebuffed international calls for an independent inquiry into the May 13 bloodshed, apparently looked to his trip to underline that China is on his side. On Tuesday, Beijing said it "firmly" backed his actions in crushing anti-government demonstrators.

China is eager to tap into Central Asia's energy resources, and it has watched warily since the United States deployed troops to the region after the Sept. 11 attacks, including at an Uzbek base.

Beijing also wants stability in the former Soviet states of Central Asia, a region that China -- like Russia -- considers a tinderbox of Islamic militancy that could spread to its own territory.

The Chinese and Uzbek governments said Karimov's visit was planned long before the May 13 uprising in the eastern Uzbek town of Andijan.

Western governments harshly criticized Karimov for using force to put down the uprising. But China and Russia have been more supportive of Karimov's decision to act after armed men seized government buildings and broke into a jail to free 23 businessmen accused of Islamic extremism.

Uzbek officials claim 169 people -- mainly militants -- were killed in Andijan. But rights activists contend hundreds of protesters died and insist many were unarmed civilians who were only voicing their opposition to Karimov's government and anger over economic woes.

An Uzbek activist, former physician Gulbakhor Turayeva, said Tuesday that she saw about 500 bodies lying in the yard of Andijan's School No. 15 the day after the violence. She said she counted 400 bodies before guards chased her away and she estimated there were about 100 more. She said most of the dead were men.

Turayeva said another activist, whom she declined to identify, reported seeing 50 bodies, mostly women and children, at a college building on the same day. Other residents said some bodies were buried secretly in several sites outside Andijan, she said.

However, corroborating official claims of violence by protesters, Turayeva said she had seen demonstrators hurling rocks at the city prosecutor, Ganidjon Abdurakhimov, as he sought to calm tensions before troops moved in. She said Abdurakhimov apparently was killed by stones.

NATO and the European Union have called for an independent probe of the events, but Karimov has resisted.

Uzbek officials failed to show up Tuesday as foreign ministers and officials from NATO nations and 20 of their neighbors to the east began two days of discussions about stability in the Euro-Asian region. Swedish Foreign Minister Laila Freivalds, the host, said Karimov's government gave no reason for withdrawing.

The United States has also criticized the crackdown and said it hopes for more democracy in Uzbekistan. But China and Russia are lined up on the other side.

"We firmly support the efforts by the authorities of Uzbekistan to strike down the three forces of terrorism, separatism and extremism," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan said Tuesday in Beijing.

Kong said China "supports the efforts by the Uzbekistan government to stabilize their domestic situation and their commitment to development of the country."

China stresses the importance of maintaining stability in Central Asia through the China-backed Shanghai Cooperation Organization, whose members include Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

The group set up an anti-terrorism center in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, although the move is viewed as largely symbolic.

China claims ethnic Uighur separatists are fighting for an independent Islamic state in its western region of Xinjiang, which is about 120 miles from Andijan and shares Uzbekistan's Muslim religion and Turkic language roots.

Foreign experts are skeptical of the claims, and the regime's critics say the specter of terrorism is being used as an excuse to tighten Beijing's control there.

Although Uzbekistan is separated from China by Kyrgyzstan, the China-Kyrgyz border reportedly is porous and potentially easily penetrated by Islamic insurgents.

China closed the border for six days in March after protesters stormed Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev's offices. Akayev fled to Russia and resigned his office.


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