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US told to quit airbase after criticising protest massacre

London Times | August 1, 2005
By Jeremy Page

UZBEKISTAN has told the US military to leave an airbase on its soil that has been a key launch pad for American operations in neighbouring Afghanistan since 2001.

The surprise move was seen as a direct response to Washington’s criticism of the Uzbek Government over the shooting of protesters in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan in May.

It was also a victory for Russia and China, which see resource-rich Central Asia as their strategic backyard and have been lobbying for an end to the US presence there.

Uzbekistan sent an official note to the US Embassy in Tashkent last week asking it to withdraw from the Karshi-Khanabad airbase, known as K2, within six months.

“This is a bilateral agreement between two sovereign nations and under that agreement either side has the option to terminate the agreement,” Nancy Beck, a State Department spokeswoman, said.

The US has about 1,300 personnel at K2 and another 1,000 at a base in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, also set up after the September 11, 2001, attacks.

Washington had come under pressure in the past month from Russia, China and four former Soviet Central Asian nations to set a date for withdrawal from the two bases.

Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, visited Kyrgyzstan last week and won reassurances that the Pentagon could use the Manas base there for as long as necessary. Asked last Monday about the possibility of Uzbekistan closing K2, Mr Rumsfeld said: “We have had a good relationship. It’s a good relationship now.”

Relations deteriorated when Kyrgyzstan, under pressure from the West, allowed the United Nations to fly 439 Andijan refugees to Romania, pending resettlement in a third country. The US supported the move and called for another 15 refugees, being held in custody, to be allowed to leave the country.

Uzbekistan says that many of the refugees are escaped convicts or Islamic extremists and wants them returned to face trial. The refugees say that they will face torture and possibly death at the hands of Uzbekistan’s notoriously brutal police and security services.

President Islam Karimov has ruled his nation of 26 million people since 1989 by jailing political opponents and banning religious activity outside state-controlled institutions. The brutality of his regime was highlighted last year by Craig Murray, the former British ambassador, who was recalled after accusing London and Washington of tacitly condoning the use of torture in Uzbek prisons.

The issue came to a head on May 13 when Uzbek forces opened fire on anti-government protesters in Andijan after armed rebels occupied government buildings and stormed a prison. The Government says that 187 people were killed, mostly Islamic extremists, but witnesses and human rights groups say that up to 750 unarmed civilians were killed.

When Washington backed calls for an international inquiry, Uzbekistan placed restrictions on K2, banning night flights and heavy cargo planes.

The Pentagon admitted that K2 had been a key staging post for refuelling aircraft and moving military and humanitarian supplies into Afghanistan. The ban on night flights forced the US to relocate its HC-130 aircraft, used for tanker and search-and-rescue missions, to Bagram airbase, Afghanistan. That has put a strain on Bagram’s fuel supplies, which have to be driven in over mountain passes.

US withdrawal from K2 would also alter the strategic balance with China and Russia, which has military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

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