Putin hails Uzbek leader on killings anniversary
MOSCOW, May 12 (Reuters) Russian President Vladimir Putin told Uzbekistan's leader Islam Karimov today he looked forward to blossoming ties, nearly a year to the day after Uzbek troops earned international censure by firing on civilians.
Putin received Karimov at his summer residence in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi. The two men hailed a recent agreement on closer integration between Russia and Uzbekistan, an ex-Soviet state in Central Asia.
''This is ... a step towards creating qualitatively new cooperation,'' Russian television showed Putin telling Karimov as the Russian leader's black labrador, Connie, played in the background. ''We must also note the positive trend in our trade and economic cooperation.'' Neither Putin nor Karimov, in their public remarks, made any mention of the Uzbek city of Andizhan.
Eyewitnesses said hundreds were killed on May 13, 2005, among them women and children, when troops opened fire on a protest in Andizhan.
Uzbek officials say only 187 people died, either armed extremists or troops and police.
The Kremlin has defended the Uzbek authorities over Andizhan, driving a wedge between Russia and Western powers who condemned it and have isolated Karimov's administration.
Karimov is accused by rights groups and Western governments of brutally suppressing free speech and stifling economic reforms. He thanked Putin for the attention Russia paid to stability in Central Asia.
Karimov has defended his rule by saying only tough action can curb Islamist extremists who, he says, have infiltrated Uzbekistan from neighbouring Afghanistan. Putin has used the same argument to defend his ally.
The Uzbek leader took a swipe at the United States, which had a military base in Uzbekistan but was asked to leave last year after criticising Karimov's government over Andizhan.
''We are seeing very serious challenges and attempts by powers from outside the region to establish a presence,'' Itar-Tass news agency quoted Karimov as saying.
A French journalist visiting Andizhan was forced to leave the city yesterday after being harassed by an unidentified group of people, his employer, Agence France Presse said.
Antoine Lambroschini was hit on the head, pushed and then briefly held at a local city council office, AFP said. One of his assailants threatened to return the reporter ''in a box'' if he did not leave the town, it said.
New-York-based Human Rights Watch has said Western governments must step up pressure on Karimov to allow an independent inquiry into the killings.
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