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U.S.-Uzbekistan pact leaves door open to military

From Elise Labott
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Uzbekistan will provide the United States with use of its airspace and the "necessary military and civilian infrastructure" of one of its airports in the U.S.-led campaign against Afghanistan, both countries announced Friday.

Uzbekistan's president last week said he would allow the U.S. military to use an Uzbek air base for humanitarian purposes. But a joint U.S.-Uzbek agreement signed on Sunday, the day the strikes began, appears to leave the door open for offensive purposes as well.

The agreement established "a strong basis for bilateral cooperation in the struggle against terrorism," the two nations said.

The statement makes official the cooperation that is already in motion between the two countries. Pentagon sources say more than 1,000 U.S. troops, including special operations forces, are at the Khanabad military base near Karshi, Uzbekistan, roughly 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of the Afghan border.

The U.S. troops already on the ground include about 1,000 soldiers from the Army's 10th Mountain Division and U.S. Air Force crews trained for combat search and rescue missions.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited Uzbekistan last week, where he firmed up U.S. plans to use Uzbekistan as a staging ground for special operation forces as well as other U.S. troops necessary to conduct "rapid extraction" missions in Afghanistan.

Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov last Friday said he would allow the United States the use of one of its air bases for humanitarian purposes, such as food drops and search and rescue operations. He said Uzbekistan "is not ready yet" to allow U.S. military forces to be based there for an offensive against Afghanistan.

But the new joint statement leaves open the door for such a scenario, saying that Uzbekistan's airspace and airport would "be used in the first instance for humanitarian purposes."

"Our two governments have decide to establish a qualitatively new relationship based on a long-term commitment to advance security and regional stability," the statement went on to say.

In fact, one senior administration official has told CNN, the Uzbek government has been privately urging the United States to set up and maintain military bases on Uzbek soil even after the Afghan mission is over -- to protect the former Soviet republic from Russia as well as al Qaeda terrorists who may flee across the border.


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