U.S. military will lose air base in protest over refugee transport

Uzbek site was central in Afghan operations

July 31, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Uzbekistan formally ordered the United States to leave an air base that has been a hub for operations in Afghanistan in an abrupt protest over a secret United Nations operation on Friday to spirit out refugees who had fled an uprising in Uzbekistan this year, a senior State Department official said yesterday.

The official said Uzbekistan had given the United States 180 days to shut down the base, which has played a central role in rooting out fighters for the Taliban and al-Qaida and in carrying out relief operations.

In recent months, the Uzbek government said it wanted the United States to leave the base, the Karshi-Khanabad Airfield, called K-2. But no specific timetable was set, and there was hope that the matter could be negotiated. R. Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, had been planning to travel to Uzbekistan to discuss the issue, along with a U.S. demand that Uzbekistan permit an international investigation into the violent suppression of a prison riot and public demonstration in Andijon in May, during which many people were shot and killed.

However, the State Department official said that Burns would not go to the region now.

"Obviously, we don't want to lose K-2," he said. "When we heard on Friday that Uzbekistan had pulled the plug, we thought, `Why send Burns out there now?' Maybe we ought to let things cool down."

The official said that the United States would accept the loss of the base rather than yield in its position that Uzbekistan needed political and economic changes. That position is endorsed by top officials at the Pentagon, where Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld has said that the base, while important, was something that could be substituted if necessary.

The middle-of-the-night episode in which Uzbek refugees were spirited out of the region was not disclosed until yesterday. The State Department official, speaking anonymously under ground rules imposed by the department, was involved in the matter. He said that 450 refugees had fled to Kyrgyzstan after the uprising in May but that the Uzbek government led by President Islam A. Karimov, had wanted them back.

The Kyrgyz government has picked up 29 refugees for detention because some were charged with crimes. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has been working to get them to safety, the official said, and early Friday most were taken to an airport to be airlifted to Romania and other countries.

The official said that only 15 had been left behind, 11 of them designated as refugees and the others charged with crimes. "Our position is that they all have to come out," the official said. He said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was on the phone on Thursday and Friday with Kyrgyz leaders to arrange for the flight out.

After the mission, the official said, Uzbekistan sent a note to the American Embassy in Tashkent formally evicting the United States from the air base.

The order arrived at the end of a week in which Rumsfeld toured the region for discussions on alternatives in case United States lost access to the base.

Rumsfeld received assurances from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan that the American military could continue to use bases in those Central Asian nations to support relief and counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan.

"We feel we've had a good arrangement and good relationships in a number of those countries in the region," Rumsfeld said during his travels. "And obviously from time to time things may be adjusted one way or another."

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