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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Karimov Finds Friends in Beijing

Uzbek President Islam Karimov on Wednesday made his first trip abroad since a bloody crackdown on protesters, arriving in China one day after it voiced support for him.

Chinese officials greeted Karimov at the Beijing airport in a red carpet ceremony with flower bouquets.

While the visit was a courtesy trip scheduled after Chinese President Hu Jintao went to Tashkent last year, it gave Karimov a way to underline that China is on his side. On Tuesday, Beijing said it "firmly" backed his actions in crushing anti-government demonstrators.

Hu called Karimov an "old friend of the Chinese people" during a meeting at the Great Hall of the People, the seat of China's legislature.

"We see this visit as the most new important stage in bilateral relations," Karimov responded.

The two sides signed 15 agreements, promising cooperation in technology, tourism and education. Oil conglomerates also agreed to establish a joint venture company. No details were released on the deals.

China is eager to tap into Central Asia's energy resources.

In an interview published Wednesday in the People's Daily newspaper, the mouthpiece of China's ruling Communist Party, Karimov said the two sides were going to sign a $600 million oil joint venture deal. "This is an important step for energy cooperation between the two sides," Karimov was quoted as saying. He did not give any other details.

The Chinese and Uzbek governments said Karimov's visit Wednesday was planned long before the May 13 uprising in the eastern Uzbek town of Andijan.

China claims ethnic Uighur separatists are fighting for an independent Islamic state in its western region of Xinjiang, which is about 190 kilometers from Andijan and shares Uzbekistan's Muslim religion and Turkic language roots.

Foreign experts are skeptical of the claims, and the regime's critics say the specter of terrorism is being used as an excuse to tighten Beijing's control there.

 A group of prominent Uzbek businessmen on Wednesday urged pro-democracy forces to unite in a push for democratic and free-market reforms in the country. "Awash in the blood of innocent victims, Uzbekistan will never be the same as before," said Sanjar Umarov, a top businessman and a prominent member of the Sunshine Uzbekistan Coalition, which includes some opposition leaders.

 Russia on Wednesday denounced as unfair a call by the United Nations and NATO for an international investigation into the military crackdown in Uzbekistan.