Allies to Get Second Uzbek Base?

There are growing indications that European troops may be granted use of an airbase in Uzbekistan.

Allies to Get Second Uzbek Base?

There are growing indications that European troops may be granted use of an airbase in Uzbekistan.

As British and French troops prepare to deploy on the ground in Afghanistan, speculation is growing that Uzbekistan will grant the Europeans use of the airport at Shahrisabz in the southern Kashkadarya region of the country.

Tashkent has been allowing US troops to use the Khanabad airfield in the same region since the beginning of the American military campaign. Since their deployment there, the US forces have stepped up their activity in support of the Northern Alliance offensive against the Taleban.

The amount of air traffic at the base has doubled over the last month to ten flights a day, according to local officials.

More and more foreign military aircraft have also been arriving at Shahrisabz airport, about 100 km from the regional centre Karshi. And according to a senior Uzbek military source, the base may be turned into a staging post for British or French troops. French and British military officials reportedly inspected the airbase last week.

The Europeans may have selected Shahrisabz because it is close to Tajikistan - the second Central Asia country which borders Afghanistan and which has officially given its support for the US-led campaign.

Another factor may be that the Americans do not want to share the facilities at Khanabad, making it essential to find an alternative base for the Europeans.

The reported deployment of more NATO troops on Uzbek soil poses a dilemma for the secretive and authoritarian government in Tashkent.

At a press conference during a visit to Kazakstan, President Islam Karimov denied suggestions that NATO troop deployment was about to increase significantly. He said reports that French soldiers were about to arrive in the country on their way to Mazar-e-Sharif, in northern Afghanistan, were groundless.

The president condemned the claims as a provocation put out by unnamed intelligence agencies to test his reaction. Uzbekistan had no intention of indiscriminately allowing foreign armed forces to use its territory for their own ends, he said.

The president's denial lacked conviction, however, as the government similarly withheld information about its decision to cooperate with the US for weeks after it had hatched the agreement.

Tashkent may simply be trying to draw a veil over the imminent deployment of British and French troops.

The terms of the Uzbek government's deal with the US, including their use of the Khanabad airbase, remains secret. The Uzbeks have publicised no information about the anticipated economic benefits of joining America's anti-terrorist effort, though media reports suggest Washington offered US 8 billion US dollars in investment.

While President Karimov may be shy about stressing the benefits of his new ties with Washington, local residents around the Khanabad base have no such scruples. They are visibly delighted to have Americans stationed in the neighbourhood.

In only a few weeks, the airbase has generated a handsome income for local villagers who happily sift through the trash containers removed from the base looking for leftover food and discarded clothes.

Items from US army combat rations are already on display at markets as far away as the regional capital of Karshi. When locals are asked where this sealed produce came from, they say they found it in the trash from the Khanabad airbase. Some Kashkadarya residents are also sporting US army uniforms.

Uzbekistan's poorly paid pilots also appreciate the Americans' surplus combat rations. On their tiny salaries of US 20 dollars a month, they find that the American provisions tide them and their families over when their wages are delayed.

Muhammad Ashurali-ugli is a pseudonym of a journalist in Uzbekistan

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