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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Vows Support For Uzbek Defense

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan -- Moving to extend the nation's presence in volatile Central Asia, President Vladimir Putin on Friday promised military aid to Uzbekistan to help combat Islamic extremism.

"A threat to Uzbekistan is a threat to Russia," Putin said at a news conference after talks with Uzbek President Islam Karimov. "If we don't stop aggressive moves in the south, we will face it at home."

Putin later continued on to Turkmenistan for the second-leg of his two-day Central Asian tour.

Russia and Uzbek troops have recently held joint maneuvers, and Putin said Friday that the military cooperation will develop further. "That may even include taking preventative actions," he said without elaboration.

Officials from both nations discussed military issues in closed-door talks. Karimov earlier hinted that Uzbekistan would like help modernizing its air defense system.

Karimov has established a strong secular rule, cracking down on Islamic movements, human rights activists and other dissenters. He says that tough rule was necessary to prevent the spread of Islamic fundamentalism following the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Russia has tried to maintain its presence in the region, which it dominated for centuries. Until recently, Karimov had been wary of Moscow's initiatives and preferred to look for assistance in Turkey, the United States and Europe. The United States and other Western nations have offered some aid but warned Karimov that he must improve Uzbekistan's human rights record and reform its Soviet-style economy to get more.

Irritated by such criticism, Karimov has turned toward Russia in hope of getting economic and military aid.

"Today Russia is the only country that can help ensure Uzbekistan's security," he said Friday. "Uzbekistan alone can't defend itself, and we are naturally asking Russia to help protect us."

Putin was met in the Turkmen capital by President Saparmurat Niyazov and the two were expected to turn their attention to the nation's second major concern in the region - vast reserves of untapped oil and gas.

Niyazov, who appears more willing to do business with straight-talking Putin than with his predecessor, welcomed him at the lavish presidential palace in Ashgabat.

Niyazov also warmly greeted Rem Vyakhirev, head of Gazprom. The gas monopoly is at the heart of a deal under which Ashgabat would supply huge volumes of gas to Russia for up to 30 years.

Putin may also raise the issues of security and instability in Afghanistan, which borders both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Turkmenistan is officially neutral and Niyazov appears less concerned than Karimov about the threat of violence and religious extremism spreading from Afghanistan.

In Minsk on Tuesday, Putin will meet the leaders of four other former Soviet republics - Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan - the Kremlin said Friday.