Rights groups hail EU on Myanmar; dismay on Uzbeks

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BRUSSELS, Oct 16 (Reuters) Rights campaigners expressed dismay today at the relaxation of EU sanctions against Uzbekistan but welcomed a decision to take tougher steps against military-ruled Myanmar.

Yesterday EU ministers agreed to suspend for six months travel restrictions imposed on leaders of gas-rich Uzbekistan for the crushing of a revolt in the town of Andizhan in 2005, despite calls by rights group to keep them in place.

They did though announce new sanctions on Myanmar after its bloody crackdown on protests last month. These targeted the key timber, metals and gemstone sectors and ministers warned they could go further and ban all new investment.

''We are disappointed by the line on Uzbekistan because the fundamental situation with human rights has not improved,'' said David Nichols of Amnesty International in Brussels.

He said it was positive Uzbekistan had abolished the death penalty, but there had been a deterioration in freedom of expression and there were persistent allegations of torture.

Nichols said it was especially disappointing ministers had not stuck to a demand for an independent probe into Andizhan, where witnesses say hundreds of people, including women and children, were killed when troops fired on unarmed protesters.

Uzbekistan says 187 guerrillas or ''terrorists'', were killed in a police action against Islamist extremists.

Lotte Leicht of Human Rights Watch called the Uzbekistan decision ''deeply disappointing'' and said it was important that the EU closely tracked conditions it had set for the Uzbeks to avoid reimposition of the visa bans.

''These are very easily verifiable,'' she said.

The EU ministers called on Uzbekistan to meet international obligations and release jailed rights activists, allow international access to detainees, and engage with the United Nations and the EU on rights.

While the EU has long prided itself on basing foreign policy on values not interests, Germany, seeking to secure Central Asian energy resources in the face of competition from China and Russia, led the push to drop the sanctions with Uzbekistan.

It argued this was the best way to bring about change.

European trade with Myanmar is relatively limited, but the EU has so far steered clear of Myanmar's energy sector, in which French oil giant Total is a big investor.

Leicht welcomed the new Myanmar sanctions, but said ''more needs to be done''.

REUTERS GL PM1927

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