Uzbekistan told US to close down airbase 'after gas deal with Russia' and get out

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The Independent Online

The United States has been given six months to shut its airbase in the central Asian state of Uzbekistan in an ultimatum that is a snub to Washington and a boost for Russia which has been deeply uneasy about the presence of the US military in an area it considers its back yard.

Washington was served notice at the weekend at its embassy in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, and unless it can persuade the autocratic regime of Islam Karimov to change its mind it will have to close the base known as Karshi-Khanabad or "K2", within 180 days and withdraw the thousands of military personnel. K2 was established after the 9/11 attacks in the US and is used to fly humanitarian and military missions into nearby Afghanistan.

America has paid $15m (£8.5m) in rent since 2001 when it opened and it was keen to extend its lease. But Russia wants the US military out of the former Soviet central Asia.

And America has been under enormous pressure from human rights groups to condemn the Karimov regime for a massacre of opposition figures and ordinary civilians in May. The US State Department has irked Tashkent by calling for an international inquiry (Moscow says no such inquiry is necessary). But Britain's former ambassador to Tashkent, Craig Murray, said the move was driven by a desire to keep control of the Uzbek economy in local and Russian hands.

"This is about the Karimov regime's decision to turn to Gazprom and the Russians, not the US, to develop Uzbekistan's oil and gas," he said. "This deal was brokered between the President's daughter, Gulnara Karimova, and Alisher Usmanov, the Uzbek-born Russian who bought 27 per cent of Corus [British Steel])."

"They were concerned that Western companies could build centres of wealth not under their direct control. They have decided to turn to Russian and Chinese state companies for investment."

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