Karimov Mends Ties With West

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan -- Uzbek President Islam Karimov has struck a conciliatory tone with the West ahead of next week's presidential election, vowing to improve relations with the United States and Europe.

Karimov's relations with the West soured after troops opened fire on a crowd in the town of Andijan in May 2005. Witnesses said hundreds of people were killed. The government put the toll at 187 and said the dead were primarily terrorists and security forces.

In remarks published by state media over the weekend, Karimov said, however, that relations with the West were bound to improve.

"Uzbekistan, in its foreign policy, has always been and remains an advocate of mutually advantageous cooperation and mutual respect with all ... neighbors, including the United States and Europe," he said.

"We will never step away from this path. Moreover, I can say with confidence that the base for equal and mutually advantageous relations that suit our national interests is only strengthening today," Karimov said.

Some Western countries have long accused the Uzbek government of cracking down on basic liberties and allowing violations of human rights. Karimov has denied violations and has in return accused the West of meddling in his nation's domestic affairs.

The European Union imposed a visa ban on eight Uzbek officials and a prohibition on sales of military equipment following the events in Andijan. In October, the EU suspended the travel restrictions for six months.

Karimov, in power since 1989, is widely expected to win the Dec. 23 vote. No opposition parties have been able to register legally in the country, which has never held an election deemed free and fair by international observers.

The election monitoring arm of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is sending a limited observation mission to Uzbekistan to monitor the election. In a Dec. 4 report, the body chided Uzbekistan for suppressing opposition voices ahead of the vote.

Three other Uzbek presidential hopefuls are from pro-presidential parties and have never publicly criticized Karimov.

The Uzbek leader has pledged to hold a fair contest and bring more democracy if re-elected.

"Voters, the whole nation deeply understand today the essence and the significance of the current election campaign which is being held in strict accordance with the constitution and laws -- in an open, objective and fair way," Karimov said.