November 24th, 2005
Uzbekistan halts NATO overflights to Afghanistan info
Uzbekistan halts NATO overflights to Afghanistan |
The Seattle Times ^ | November 23, 2005 | Paul Ames
BRUSSELS, Belgium – Uzbekistan has told NATO allies they can no longer use its territory or airspace to support peacekeeping missions in neighboring Afghanistan — an apparent retaliatory move against a West critical of the former Soviet republic's human rights record, alliance officials said today.
Uzbekistan's shift away from once-warm relations with the West has been matched by closer ties with Russia, ever wary of Western influence in its former Soviet satellites. The two countries this month signed a far-reaching treaty opening the way for a Russian military deployment in the Central Asian nation.
The NATO officials said, however, that alternatives would be found and the mission would not be hurt.
"There will be no diminishment of our ability to support our operation in Afghanistan," NATO spokesman James Appathurai said.
NATO diplomats said Uzbek authorities told European allies — including Germany and Spain — that they must withdraw troops and stop overflights by Jan. 1, although Appathurai said alliance headquarters had not received such a message directly.
Uzbekistan already had ordered out the U.S. military. On Monday the Americans flew their last plane out from an air base in Uzbekistan that had been an important hub for operations in Afghanistan.
The latest order came amid worsening relations between the Central Asian republic and Western nations that have voiced disapproval of a bloody government crackdown on demonstrators in the eastern city of Andijan.
Diplomats at NATO headquarters said the decision to expel NATO appeared to be in retaliation for recent acts by the European Union. Last week, the EU banned 12 Uzbek officials from entering the 25-nation bloc for their involvement in quelling the May 13 uprising. Last month, the bloc imposed an arms embargo on Uzbekistan and suspended a cooperation pact.
Germany was likely to be most affected by the decision announced today because it uses a base at Termez, in southern Uzbekistan, to provide backup for its 2,250 troops in Afghanistan — one of the largest contingents in the NATO force.
German helicopters from the Termez base also have been used to fly aid to victims of the Pakistan earthquake.
The Defense Ministry in Berlin said Germany had alternatives if it can no longer use Termez.
Officials said one alternative could be switching the support base to Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan. Germany is supposed to take over the NATO headquarters there from Britain next year under plans to expand and reorganize the peacekeeping force.
Uzbekistan became an important ally in the war on terrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and granted permission for the United States to establish an air base in the country. Relations have progressively soured, amid concern over President Islam Karimov's human rights record.
The U.S. and other Western countries harshly criticized Uzbekistan for using force against mostly unarmed civilians in Andijan. Human rights groups said up to 750 people died in the crackdown. The government put the death toll at 187.
Karimov, who has ruled the Central Asian nation for 16 years and tolerates no dissent, blamed the violence on Islamic militants.
In July, the hard-line president ordered the U.S. troops to leave the Karshi-Khanabad air base within six months, after Washington condemned the May crackdown. The base had been an important staging point to move supplies, including humanitarian aid, into northern Afghanistan. It also was a refueling point for transport planes.