Uzbeks order closure of US airbase


UZBEKISTAN: Uzbekistan has ordered the closure of a US airbase in the country as a row escalates over the killing of up to 500 people during an opposition rally two months ago.

The Karshi-Khanabad air base has been a hub for US missions into Afghanistan since shortly after September 11th. It continues to be used to ferry in troops and supplies. America has led criticism of the reported massacre of demonstrators last May in the town of Andijan. The US military is working with the state department to evaluate the note "to see exactly what it means," defence department spokesman Glenn Flood said.

Last week, US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited the republics of Tadjikistan and Kyrgyzstan, where America also has an air base, but pointedly avoided including neighbour Uzbekistan.

Then later last week the US gave its support to a plan to move 450 refugees who had escaped the Andijan massacre to new homes in the West. Uzbekistan had demanded that the refugees return, but they insisted that this would be a death sentence.

Uzbek president Islam Karimov has refused international calls for an investigation into the massacre. Red Cross officials have been refused permission to interview survivors of the killing, with Tashkent insisting it will hold its own inquiry.

Russia, China and all five central Asian republics earlier this month asked for America to set a deadline for pulling out of the region. But the US may be planning to stay. American support was behind Kyrgyzstan's pro-democracy "Tulip Revolution" in March. That uprising ended with president Askar Akayev escaping to Moscow. As a result, the new Kyrgyz government is more sympathetic to America, and US operations have already begun moving to the Manas airbase.

Both Moscow and Washington are keen to have strategic ties in the region, which is rich in oil and natural gas. Last year Moscow signed a strategic partnership agreement that will see Gazprom, Russia's state gas company, make a $1 billion investment.