U.S.-Trained Forces Present in Crackdown

APUzbek soldiers standing at an Andijan checkpoint. Washington has trained and equipped Uzbek troops and police — the same forces who fired on protesters.
ANDIJAN, Uzbekistan -- The black-masked guard behind the gate of the regional police office sauntered over with his Kalashnikov projecting the embodiment of force, but his just-visible brown eyes softened when he fondly remembered his time training in the United States.

Behind him, dozens of military and police troops in buses streamed out of the heavily guarded Andijan police complex wearing new American-style helmets to maintain control in the city.

Uzbekistan has been a key ally in the U.S.-led war on terror, providing a base for American troops for operations in neighboring Afghanistan. But even before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the U.S. government provided training and equipment to Uzbek troops and police -- some of the same forces who opened fire without warning May 13 on about 2,000 demonstrators supporting armed militants who had seized government buildings and freed 23 businessmen jailed on charges of Islamic extremism.

Following the May 13 action, international groups renewed calls for the United States and international community to reconsider assistance to Uzbekistan. Under U.S. law, no unit of a foreign military can receive training if it is found to have committed a gross violation of human rights.

Uzbek officials will not name the exact units involved in the Andijan events for security reasons. But one police official who spoke on condition of anonymity said all elite forces had been mobilized here, including regular army and special forces of all sorts.

At the Andijan police headquarters, the masked guard wearing blue-and-gray urban camouflage said he was an intelligence officer with the Kalkon unit, meaning "Shield." Seeing a foreign reporter, he briefly reminisced about training in the United States, where lessons were first translated into Russian, but because not everyone could understand, an Uzbek speaker from Tashkent was later summoned.

Under a 2002 strategic partnership agreement between Washington and Tashkent, the United States pledged to help equip Uzbek military units and train them in combating terrorism, drug trafficking, money laundering and other threats. U.S. and Uzbek soldiers have held regular training exercises since the 1990s, with U.S. special forces troops heading to the Uzbek mountains for lessons on repelling incursions -- a main worry for Uzbekistan after several such attacks. Uzbek troops have traveled to the United States for special forces, airborne and English-language programs.

Uzbekistan's human rights abuses have caused it to lose aid before. Last July, the U.S. State Department withdrew most of its aid after failing to certify Tashkent had made progress to rectify its abuses. But later that month, General John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the region, flew to Tashkent to reassure the Uzbeks that the American military would maintain and even boost its cooperation -- aid that is separate from State Department assistance.

After the Andijan violence, Abizaid said the U.S. military was scaling back operations at the Karshi-Khanabad base. But officers at the base told a visiting AP reporter that they had not noted any reduction in movement there.

The Uzbeks are now engaged in talks with Washington hoping to get compensation for use of the base, now rent-free for U.S. troops.

Noting the base negotiations that could be a financial windfall for Uzbekistan, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch expressed concern last week that Defense Department cooperation with the country continues, and that the European Union also gives some 16 million euros ($20.1 million) in indirect assistance. Troops in Andijan were seen driving around in British Land Rovers.

The Brussels-based International Crisis Group think tank noted that despite the decline in U.S. aid, there was a "widespread perception among Uzbeks that the U.S. strongly backs an increasingly unpopular regime."