Uzbek president leaves for US, pledges to talk about new human rights stance

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan - Uzbek President Islam Karimov, upon departure for a key visit to Washington, said Monday that he would negotiate future military relations with the United States and discuss his government's human rights record.

Karimov said six documents were prepared for the visit, including one calling for "a joint response to any threats or any force posing a threat to Uzbekistan's security," according to Uzbek state radio. He did not elaborate.

Uzbekistan's global role has grown in recent months because of its strong support for the U.S. anti-terrorist campaign in neighboring Afghanistan, including the use of an Uzbek air base for more than 1,000 U.S. troops. U.S. aid to Uzbekistan has jumped to dlrs 160 million this year from dlrs 55 million the year before.

The agreements to be signed in Washington "open a new opportunity to build a new relationship with the strongest and most powerful country - the United States," Karimov said at Tashkent's airport.

He said the talks opening Tuesday would address economic reforms in his former Soviet republic. Foreign investors have long been frustrated by the hard-line government's tight controls and rampant corruption.

Karimov also said better relations with the United States would help Uzbekistan expand democratic freedoms. Warm U.S. relations with Uzbekistan have alarmed international human rights groups, who accuse Karimov's government of cracking down on independent journalists, opposition politicians and religious groups.

"Also at the center of talks will be the theme of democratic reform, questions of the new interpretation and understanding of human rights and freedom of press and information," Karimov was quoted as saying.

His government registered the country's first independent human rights group last week, just as the U.S. government decried abuses in Uzbekistan in its annual human rights report. The Uzbek move was seen by many as a sign that the international attention on Central Asia because of the Afghan war is bringing changes for the better.

The leader of the group, Mikhail Ardzinov, said Monday at the first news conference since the group's registration that Uzbekistan must make radical changes.

Ardzinov said he welcomed authorities' decision to register his organization but that their steps toward democracy were "too small, far between and timid."

"The (human rights) situation is changing, but not because that is the will of the authoritarian regime," he said.

Calling for continued international pressure, Ardzinov urged the release of more than 7,000 political prisoners and an end to censorship and persecution of political opposition and dissident Muslims. He also said independent political parties should be legalized and exiled opposition leaders be allowed to return home.