Uzbekistan restricts U.S. flights over its territory in response to White House's embargo threats


Moscow, June 16 (RIA Novosti, Pyotr Goncharov) - Authorities in the Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan have banned nighttime flights of U.S. military planes from the Khanabad airbase. The decision comes in response to unequivocal hints from Washington (notably from the U.S. State Department), as well as from the EU headquarters in Brussels, that if it does not give its consent to an international inquiry into the Andizhan events, the Islam Karimov government will have to face an economic embargo and other sanctions.

The U.S. will now have to relocate its planes from Uzbekistan to the military airfield at Bagram, in Afghanistan, and to the Manasa airbase, in Kyrgyzstan.

It seems like the U.S.-Uzbek alliance, built as part of Washington's counter-terrorism campaign in Afghanistan, has been put on hold indefinitely. The conflict is obviously a political one. State Secretary Condoleezza Rice's recent warning about possible measures to further isolate Uzbekistan from the global community must have been taken by the Karimov government with all due seriousness. Apparently, her reference to last year's decision by the U.S. Administration to cut off the payment of an $11 million bonus to its former Central Asian ally hasn't passed unnoticed, either.

The European Union has taken an even tougher line. Jean Asselborn, Foreign Minister of Luxembourg, the country currently holding the rotating EU presidency, made it clear the other day that sanctions against Uzbekistan were imminent.

The Human Rights Watch has been particularly proactive in pressing for an independent inquiry into the Uzbek authorities' handling of recent protests in Andizhan. It, too, wants Uzbekistan's incumbent government to be punished with sanctions.

The NATO Parliamentary Assembly has also had its say on the matter. It has called on all of the alliance's member states to suspend assistance for Uzbekistan's armed forces.

The decision to relocate the U.S. military aircraft to the neighboring Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan was being made amid a sharp controversy between the Pentagon and the State Department-something the Bush Administration tries to play down.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other senior Pentagon officials want the Khanabad base retained, and are therefore against bringing pressure to bear on the Uzbek government in connection with the Andizhan events. They are perfectly aware of that base's strategic importance, especially for the U.S.-led counter-terrorism operation in Afghanistan. It will be remembered that Uzbekistan was the first Central Asian country to have offered its airfields to the U.S. Air Force when the operation began.

The international community's current pressure on Tashkent is something of a blackmail, and the Karimov government has been aware all along that even if it accepted their terms, it would find itself in isolation anyway. Washington has repeatedly made it clear that Coalition aircraft could be relocated to Afghan airfields, if necessary.

How long will the U.S.-Uzbek alliance be on hold? And what kind of tactics is President Karimov going to opt for now?

The Uzbek leadership will have no difficulty securing the support of regional allies. Authorities in China, Kazakhstan and Russia have already assured the Karimov government of their unconditional backing.

As for the U.S.' persistent efforts to spread democracy throughout the region by provoking further revolutionary upheavals, they may eventually lead to the alienation of Central Asian nations. But will then China, Kazakhstan, and Russia be able to help these nations stay afloat?

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