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10-06-05, 08:28
6 Senators Urge Reassessment of Ties With Uzbekistan Ruler

New York Times

June 10, 2005


KIEV, Ukraine, June 8 - Six United States senators urged the Bush administration on Wednesday to reconsider its relationship with the authoritarian government in Uzbekistan, saying close association with a nation whose troops fired on demonstrators last month risked undermining the security of the United States.

The senators - four Republicans and two Democrats - also asked if the administration knew whether American-trained troops or American military equipment were used in the deadly crackdown, in Andijon, in northeastern Uzbekistan.

The senators' statement, in a letter sent to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, exposed growing unease about ties between the United States' military and Uzbekistan's president, Islam A. Karimov, who emerged in 2001 as an important ally in the fight against Islamic terrorists. Copies were obtained by The New York Times from the staffs of two of the senators who signed the letter.

Mr. Karimov's government has long been criticized by the State Department, private aid organizations and the United Nations for its poor human rights record, repression of political opponents and use of torture. Yet it has managed to maintain strong ties with Washington, in part by granting the Pentagon access to an airbase near the Afghan border.

Uzbek troops used rifle and machine-gun fire to crush a prison break and mass protest in Andijon. Uzbekistan has not yet cooperated in calls for an independent international investigation of the episode, which left at least 173 people dead.

An investigation released Tuesday by Human Rights Watch labeled the crackdown a massacre and said the death toll was in the hundreds - much higher than the official tally. It also noted that witnesses and journalists were being intimidated and in some cases arrested in the aftermath.

The United States has been slowly increasing its pressure on Uzbekistan in recent weeks; the senators' letter circulated on a day when that pressure moved up another notch. Speaking to reporters in Washington, Sean McCormack, a State Department spokesman, made clear that American officials believe more people were killed than the Uzbeks have admitted.

"I think our position would be that there have been many reliable eyewitness accounts to shooting by Uzbek forces of civilians," he said. "And I think what we know now is that hundreds of innocent civilians were killed."

"We support an international investigation into this incident," he added.

The senators posed several pointed questions to the administration, including what actions it would take if Uzbekistan continued to intimidate witnesses and block an investigation, and whether it was exploring "alternative basing arrangements."

They also cautioned against entering a long-term base deal, asking "What would be the likely fallout from America's deepening relationship with a government that brutally represses its people?" They concluded: "America's relationship with Uzbekistan cannot remain unchanged."

The letter was organized by Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, two Senate staff members said, and was signed by three other Republicans - Mike DeWine of Ohio, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John E. Sununu of New Hampshire - and two Democrats - Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Patrick Leahy of Vermont.