Elite US forces are on their way to base in Uzbekistan

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The US Army dispatched about 1,000 infantry soldiers to Uzbekistan as the Uzbek leader announced today that he had granted permission for American forces to use an air base in his country.

President Islam Karimov said at a joint news conference with US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, that the air base could be used as a home US transport planes, helicopters and troops for search–and–rescue missions.

The president stressed however, that US forces in Uzbekistan could not be used to launch air or ground attacks. He also said US special operations soldiers wold not be allowed in Uzbekistan. "We are not quite ready for this," he said.

A senior US official traveling with Mr Rumsfeld said about 1,000 members of the elite 10th Mountain Division based at Fort Drum, New York, were en route to Uzbekistan from the United States. They are to provide security for other American forces in the region, officials have said.

President Karimov said a legal document spelling out the specifics of this arrangement, including what he calls guarantees for his country's security, was being completed and eventually would be made public. "We have no secret deals," the president said.

Mr Rumsfeld told reporters he had expressed President George W. Bush's appreciation for Uzbekistan's cooperation in the campaign against terrorism.

He offered the strongest suggestion yet that while the US military will play a role, its contribution may be relatively small. Some also believe military action may not come soon. The French defence minister said no retaliation is expected for several weeks.

On the other hand, Mr Rumsfeld did not rule out the possibility of taking military action to ensure that the air defence forces of the Taliban regime do not pose a threat to the delivery of American food aid to parts of the country.