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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

America Opposed Calls for a Probe

WASHINGTON -- Defense officials from Russia and the United States helped block a new demand for an international probe into the Uzbekistan government's shooting of hundreds of protesters last month, according to U.S. and diplomatic officials.

British and other European officials had pushed to include language calling for an independent investigation in a communique issued by defense ministers of NATO countries and Russia after a daylong meeting Thursday in Brussels. But the joint communique merely stated that "issues of security and stability in Central Asia, including Uzbekistan," had been discussed.

The outcome obscured an internal U.S. dispute over whether NATO ministers should raise the May 13 shootings in Andijan at the risk of provoking Uzbekistan to cut off U.S. access to a military air base on its territory.

The communique's wording was worked out after what several knowledgeable sources called a vigorous debate in Brussels between U.S. defense officials, who emphasized the importance of the base, and others, including U.S. State Department representatives at NATO headquarters, who favored language calling for a transparent, independent and international probe into the killings of Uzbek civilians.

U.S. State and Defense Department spokesmen, asked to comment about the debate, said Washington had one policy and that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at the ministerial meeting verbally endorsed previous statements about the incident by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and President George W. Bush.

But other officials said the disagreements between Defense and State officials reflected a continuing rift in the administration over how to handle a breach of human rights that has come under sharp criticism by the State Department, the European Union and some U.S. lawmakers.

Rice has said publicly that international involvement in an inquiry into the killings in Andijan is essential, and she has declined an Uzbek invitation for Washington to send observers to a commission of inquiry controlled by the parliament. Three U.S. officials said Uzbek President Islam Karimov had retaliated against her criticism by recently curtailing certain U.S. military flights into the air base at Karshi-Khanabad, in the country's southeast, which the U.S. military considers a vital logistics hub in its struggle against terrorism.

Four sources familiar with a private discussion Thursday among the ministers said the Defense Department's stance on the Brussels communique language placed it in roughly the same camp as the Russians -- but for different reasons. The Russian position, as spelled out by Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov in statements before and after the meeting, is that the incident, while alarming, was "inspired" by Afghanistan. Ivanov said it is NATO's responsibility to control terrorism there more aggressively, but added that "we do not want to ... put any extraordinary pressure on anybody" about the shootings.

The Defense Department position, articulated before the meeting began by Mira Ricardel, acting assistant secretary for international security policy, was that "the NATO-Russia communique may not be the most appropriate place" to demand an international inquiry into the massacre, she confirmed in a telephone interview. "It was not a question of the policy, which was clear, but whether the venue for that was best" because of what she described as a routine focus at such meetings on strictly military issues.

Another official privy to the deliberations described her opposition to mentioning the word "investigation" as unequivocal.

The British view was that the communique was an ideal venue for making the demand, since Uzbekistan prizes its existing military links to NATO and a call by defense ministers would carry substantial weight. One U.S. official said Britain was prepared for a time to hold up the communique if the language was not included.

Pentagon spokesman and Rumsfeld special assistant Lawrence Di Rita said Rumsfeld was not told of the proposed communique language until he began his consultations with aides and other ministers Thursday morning. By then, according to accounts from two other officials, Russia had indicated its position on the communique might be flexible enough to include the British language calling for an independent international probe.

Accounts of the ensuing debate among U.S. officials are not perfectly consistent. One official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss the matter, said Rumsfeld caused great surprise by saying -- after being told in this discussion that the British language was consistent with stated U.S. policy and should be embraced -- that he was unaware of the policy, had not participated in meetings about it and did not want to press for its inclusion in the communique. Di Rita said, however, that Rumsfeld was merely questioning how this policy had previously been expressed because he had not attended any meeting of senior policymakers where it was approved. Later, Di Rita said, Rumsfeld "grew to understand" that the State Department had already publicly articulated this position but "this is not something that [Rumsfeld] had been involved in."

At a private meeting later that day of all of the NATO alliance ministers, plus Ivanov, Rumsfeld's remarks on the issue emphasized the risks of provoking Uzbekistan, according to four sources familiar with his statements. Rumsfeld said the ministers needed to know that the Uzbek situation had direct implications on NATO operations in the region.

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer on Thursday pinned responsibility for the failure to call for an international inquiry on Russia.

But a senior diplomat in Washington said that "there's clearly interagency tension over Uzbekistan. ... The State Department certainly seems to be extremely cool on Karimov," while the Pentagon wants to avoid upsetting the Uzbekistan government.