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Powell visits Uzbekistan minus 'booty bag'

By Andrea Koppel
State Department Correspondent

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan (CNN) -- Secretary of State Colin Powell has arrived in the capital of this Central Asian nation, a new U.S. ally and frontline state in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.

Powell said Friday he planned to thank Uzbekistan for its cooperation in the war against terrorism, but also wants to look beyond what's happening in Afghanistan.

"Twelve years ago, there were very few Americans who could tell you what they were or anything about these countries," Powell told reporters -- referring to the former Soviet satellite states in Central Asia.

"And then, after the Cold War ended, they emerged, and they're looking for their place in the sun ... a relationship with the West, because when they look west, they see opportunity, they see investment, they see assistance, they see a value system," he said.

Since September 11, Uzbek cooperation with the United States has run hot and cold.

In October, in exchange for the promise of $100 million in U.S. assistance, Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov gave a green light to positioning more than 1,000 U.S. troops from the 10th Mountain Division to run search-and-rescue missions in Afghanistan from an Uzbek airbase.

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However, despite assurances to the contrary, Karimov has not yet reopened a key bridge linking Central Asia with Afghanistan, which humanitarian organizations say is impeding their ability to deliver aid to thousands of Afghan people.

These organizations say that after three years of drought, at least one quarter of Afghanistan's 24 million people are dependent on food aid.

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Officials at the U.S. Agency for International Development say the Friendship Bridge, which is more than half a mile long and which links the Uzbek city of Termez with the crossroads city of Mazar-e Sharif in northern Afghanistan, has been shut for at least five years -- since the Taliban took control of most of Afghanistan.

Uzbek officials cite security concerns in explaining their reluctance to reopen the bridge, and say they worry Islamic militants might cross into Uzbekistan to foment opposition to the Karimov government.

Already, human rights organizations have strongly criticized Uzbekistan for jailing an estimated 7,000 people it says are terrorists with links to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a group that the United States has labeled a terrorist organization.

Not 'carrying booty bag'

Powell told reporters traveling with him en route from NATO headquarters in Brussels to Tashkent that he hopes the bridge will be open soon, but said that had has "been saying that for the last few weeks."

Powell said he was not bringing any new U.S. requests for the Uzbek government or any other Central Asia government, and, he added, he was not "carrying a booty bag filled with new money."

Powell will meet Saturday with the Uzbek foreign and defense ministers and will hold his first meeting with Karmov, the longtime Kremlin-appointed authoritarian chief.

Sensitive to criticism that the United States now appears to be befriending Karimov's repressive regime, Powell insisted he was not overlooking issues of human rights.

"We are rather candid with them about the nature of their political processes and the state of development of their institutions, but they are looking to the West because they know that's where success lies," Powell said.

From Uzbekistan, Powell will travel Saturday to Kyrgyzstan and then to Kazakhstan, before going on to Moscow to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin.


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