Former Soviet republic OKs U.S. access to air base, rules out offensive strikes from its territory

Friday, October 5th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan (AP) _ President Islam Karimov granted permission Friday for U.S. warplanes and troops to use an Uzbek air base to support President Bush's campaign to root out terrorists in neighboring Afghanistan. The Army dispatched 1,000 infantry soldiers skilled at search-and-rescue, humanitarian missions and helicopter assaults.

The deal struck by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld gave the Pentagon a foothold it needs inside Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic on Afghanistan's northern border. But it was not clear from Karimov's comments whether it provided the wide latitude U.S. officials had sought for putting a military squeeze on Afghanistan's Taliban.

``We have offered one airfield in Uzbekistan, with all the surrounding facilities, in order to deploy a limited number of (U.S.) transport airplanes and helicopters,'' Karimov said through an interpreter at a news conference with Rumsfeld.

Karimov quickly added, ``In Uzbekistan we are against the use of our territory for land operations against Afghanistan and we are against air strikes from the territory of Uzbekistan.''

``I envisage that the equipment will be used for humanitarian operations and for search and rescue operations,'' he said.

Furthermore, the president said, no U.S. special operations forces _ such as Army Rangers or Green Berets who specialize in operating behind enemy lines _ would be allowed to operate from Uzbek territory.

``We are not quite ready for this,'' he said when asked why no special forces could use the base.

In exchange for cooperation, Karimov said Uzbekistan was seeking security guarantees. He said a legal document being prepared will spell out each side's commitments.

Hours before Karimov announced the deal, about 1,000 troops from the Army's 10th Mountain Division, based at Fort Drum, N.Y., flew across the Atlantic en route to Uzbekistan, according to a senior defense official traveling with Rumsfeld. The official spoke on condition of anonymity and said later that no details about the exact locations of the troops or their missions would be made public.

They are the first regular U.S. ground troops acknowledged by the Pentagon to have deployed to Central Asia.

Earlier, other defense officials had said light infantry from the 10th Mountain would be used in Uzbekistan to provide ground security for U.S. Air Force fighter and combat search-and-rescue teams.

The troops also would be on standby to come to the aid of any U.S. special operations troops that might encounter major trouble while conducting raids inside Afghanistan.

The division performed similar missions in 1992 in Somalia and 1994 in Haiti. In Africa, soldiers secured major cities and roads to provide safe passage for relief supplies to the starving Somali population.

In Haiti, the division's 1st Brigade arrived by helicopter from an aircraft carrier off the coast, occupied Port-au-Prince International Airport and worked to create an environment in which the government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide could be re-established.

Rumsfeld's three-hour stop in Tashkent was the fourth on a five-nation tour which began Wednesday in Saudi Arabia and Oman, two countries where thousands of U.S. forces are stationed.

Rumsfeld also held talks in Cairo with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Thursday and flew to Ankara, Turkey later Friday.

In Turkey, Rumsfeld met with Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit and thanked the NATO ally for its support.

``The strong public support here in Turkey is a testament to the fact that this war against terrorism is most certainly not a war against Islam,'' Rumsfeld said in a brief written statement upon his arrival.

Karimov said his talks with Rumsfeld, which he called negotiations, produced four main points of agreement:

_ U.S. military aircraft can use Uzbek airspace.

_ Uzbekistan is prepared to ``upgrade'' its intelligence exchanges with the United States. This is a key point, in Rumsfeld's view, because he believes the Uzbeks have valuable insights into Afghanistan.

_ U.S. transport planes and helicopters and personnel involved in search and rescue operations can use one Uzbek airfield.

_ The legal document spelling out the deal will be made public.

Rumsfeld and Karimov both denied the United States made promises in exchange for the access.

Karimov said there was no quid-pro-quo ``so far,'' adding that he wanted the Russians ``especially to take that into account.'' He did not elaborate on that point, but Karimov, who became leader of Uzbekistan after it became independent of the former Soviet Union in 1991, has sought to resist the residual influence that Moscow still wields in the Central Asian states that it once ruled.

Neither Karimov nor Rumsfeld identified the air base to be used by U.S. forces. One possibility _ convenient for its proximity to Afghanistan _ is Kakaydi Air Base, 30 miles north of the city of Termez. Kakaydi was built by the Soviets in the 1980s and used to launch attacks into Afghanistan.