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Key Uzbek bridge to reopen to Afghanistan

Move will help groups in delivery of refugee aid

From Andrea Koppel
CNN Washington Bureau

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan (CNN) -- A key bridge between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan will reopen Sunday to speed aid to war refugees as the United Nations says it will begin repatriating refugees back to their homes in the spring.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Uzbek President Islam Karimov announced the Friendship Bridge's reopening Saturday. International aid organizations have long pushed for such a move as a way to speed delivery aid to refugees inside Afghanistan.

"We discussed the humanitarian situation, and in that regard the president confirmed that the bridge would open [Sunday] after one last technical check," Powell said at a news conference.

International aid organizations say that at least one quarter of Afghanistan's 24 million people are dependent on food assistance after three years of drought. With temperatures dropping this winter in the war-ravaged country, Afghans are also in need of shelter and supplies, the aid groups said. Asia
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The half-mile bridge links the Uzbek city of Termez with the crossroads city of Mazar-e Sharif in northern Afghanistan. The bridge had been closed for at least five years.

Uzbek officials cited security concerns in explaining their reluctance to reopen the bridge, saying they worried Islamic militants might cross into Uzbekistan to foment opposition to the Karimov government.

In Islamabad, Pakistan, Kamel Morjane, a U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees official and chief operations officer for the region, announced his agency will begin repatriating Afghan refugees next spring.

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Morjane made the announcement after visiting the Afghan capital, Kabul, where he assessed the safety and stability of the region. Referring to the domestic political instability and the harsh winter forecast, he said, "This is not the right time to send them home."

The U.N. refugee agency estimates more than 380,000 Afghan refugees have been displaced in camps along the Pakistan-Afghan border.

No 'booty bag' promised

In Tashkent, Powell also delivered a letter from U.S. President Bush to Karimov, thanking him for his support and inviting him to visit Washington.

Human rights groups have strongly criticized Uzbekistan for jailing an estimated 7,000 people the government says are terrorists with links to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which the United States has labeled a terrorist organization.

Sensitive to criticism that the United States 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," Powell said, "but they are looking to the West because they know that's where success lies."

Powell explained the developing U.S. relationship with Uzbekistan and its Central Asian neighbors. "Twelve years ago, there were very few Americans who could tell you what they were or anything about these countries," he said.

"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."

In October, in exchange for the promise of $100 million in U.S. assistance, 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 airfield.

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

From Uzbekistan, Powell is expected to travel to Kazakhstan and then on to Moscow to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin.


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