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US closes air base in Uzbekistan amid uprising dispute

Karimov ordered shutdown after calls for inquiry

MOSCOW -- The US military yesterday closed its air base in Uzbekistan that was used for Afghanistan operations, a shutdown ordered by Uzbek President Islam Karimov after the United States joined calls for an international inquiry into the authoritarian leader's handling of the Andijan uprising.

The shutdown of the air base at Karshi-Khanabad leaves a US air base at Manas, Kyrgyzstan, as the Pentagon's primary staging point in Central Asia for combat and humanitarian missions in Afghanistan.

Continued US access to Manas became crucial after Karimov announced in late July that he was giving the United States six months to shut down its operations at Karshi-Khanabad. US and Western European leaders had been pressing Karimov to allow an international investigation into his regime's bloody crackdown on demonstrators May 13 in the eastern Uzbekistan city of Andijan.

Human rights groups have said that up to 700 or more people died that day. Eyewitnesses said most of the dead were unarmed demonstrators shot by Uzbek soldiers. Karimov has maintained that his troops fired solely on armed protesters. He put the death toll at 187.

Karimov has rejected Western requests for the inquiry and instead has allied his regime closer with Russia and China, two nations eager to expand their influence in Central Asia. Both Beijing and Moscow expressed support for Karimov after the Andijan uprising.

The United States has maintained air bases in northern Kyrgyzstan and southern Uzbekistan since 2001, when American troops invaded Afghanistan to oust the Taliban regime. The Taliban collapsed by December 2001, but insurgents have kept up attacks on US troops and Afghan authorities.

Shortly before Karimov ordered the United States out of Karshi-Khanabad, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in July to win assurances for continued access to Manas. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Bakiyev in October and secured a written commitment from the Kyrgyz leader.

The Russian news agency Interfax reported that the last US military plane left the base yesterday afternoon after a short ceremony. The Pentagon also has agreed to pay Uzbekistan $23 million for use of the base. Some US lawmakers bristled at the idea of paying an authoritarian government with a long history of human rights abuses.

In testimony before a House committee on international relations Oct. 27, Daniel Fried, a top State Department envoy for Eurasia, said he recently met with Karimov and reiterated Washington's call for an independent inquiry into the Andijan matter, as well as the Bush administration's concerns about allegations of human-rights abuses after the May 13 crackdown.

''We will continue to urge the government of Uzbekistan to reverse its current path and to embrace reform as the only way to achieve long-term stability," Fried testified.

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