Ending an increasingly untenable silence, the US has issued a call for reform in its ally Uzbekistan, where the government violently suppressed an uprising in the restive eastern part of the country last week.
The Uzbek system was "too closed", Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State, told reporters on her way back from her weekend visit to Iraq. "We have been encouraging the government to make reforms, to make it possible for people to have a political life."
Her comments were Washington's first implicit criticism of the repressive regime of Islam Karimov, who has ruled the central Asian republic with an iron grip since it became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The delay reflected the dilemma facing the Bush administration, torn between the President's commitment to fostering democracy around the world, and its concern not to upset a government that is an important ally in the "war on terror".
The US has a major air base near the southern town of Karshi, 80 miles from Afghanistan. It is also believed to have subjected captured terrorist suspects to "rendition" to Uzbekistan - whose record has been criticised by human rights groups, as well as Ms Rice's own State Department. "This is a country that needs, in a sense, pressure valves that come from a more open political system," she told reporters, claiming that the main priority now was to avoid further violence and assist refugees - some of whom have taken refuge in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, where its own President, Askar Akayev, was ousted by a popular uprising in March.
It is unclear who is behind the uprising in Uzbekistan. President Karimov blames it on Muslim extremists, whom he claims carried out a series of bombings in 2004. But many others say the unrest reflects a long pent-up demand for political reform.
International reactions have split largely along Cold War lines. Moscow, out to preserve its sphere of influence in central Asia, has sided with Mr Karimov. But first Britain and the EU, and now the US - the strongest Western foes of the USSR - are urging reform.
Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary general, also condemned the violence, and appealed to "all parties concerned" for restraint. He urged them to follow international humanitarian law and co-operate with a UN emergency team deployed to the region to assist refugees.Reuse content