TASHKENT, Uzbekistan (AP) – Uzbekistan’s upper house of Parliament on Friday backed the government’s decision to evict U.S. troops from their base in the Central Asian nation, dealing a blow to U.S. interests in the region.

The unanimous vote by 93 Senate members present at the session reflects the souring of relations with the United States since Washington criticized a bloody government crackdown on unrest in eastern Uzbekistan.

President Islam Karimov’s government said July 29 that the United States had six months to vacate the Karshi-Khanabad air base in the country’s south, one of two set up in the former Soviet Central Asia to support operations in Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Uzbekistan has denied ordering the U.S. withdrawal because the U.S. criticized the May crackdown on unarmed demonstrators in the eastern city of Andijan. The United States joined international demands for an independent investigation into the violence, which Karimov’s government has rejected.

Karimov has blamed Islamic militants for the unrest, while U.S. and European officials have warned his authoritarian government that quashing dissent and economic enterprise could nurture militancy.

One senator said, however, it was the U.S. presence that was fomenting extremism.

“We know that fundamentalist moods arise wherever U.S. bases appear. Enemies of the United States appear wherever there is a U.S. military presence, and we don’t want to be caught in between,” Gov. Nuritdin Zainiyev of the Kashkadarya region said before the vote.

No further action is necessary from the lower chamber, as the government-loyal, 100-seat upper chamber has the final say on parliamentary decisions. The vote was not, in fact, necessary to confirm the government’s order; it was seen as an attempt to give that ruling a symbolic show of popular support and legitimize it in the eyes of the international community.

“It’s clear that this is another warning from Karimov to (President) Bush,” Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the Senate’s international affairs committee, was shown as saying in a Russian state television report in which the correspondent called the vote “a second signal, which Washington to cannot ignore.”

After throwing its support behind Bush following Sept. 11, Russia has become wary of the persistent U.S. military presence in Central Asia, particularly as nations in the European part of the former Soviet Union turn westward.

In early July, an alliance of Russia, China and Central Asian nations urged the U.S. and coalition members in Afghanistan to set a date for withdrawing from member states, including Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

The head of the Uzbek Senate’s foreign relations committee and the country’s former foreign minister, Sadyk Safayev, said the withdrawal of U.S. troops was demanded by Kashkadarya’s people because of alleged environmental damage caused by the base’s activity, including increased health problems and water and air pollution.

He also said U.S. troops must leave because the active stage of operations in Afghanistan was over.

The United States and other Western countries harshly criticized Uzbekistan for using force against mostly unarmed civilians in Andijan on May 13 and called for an international investigation. Rights groups said up to 750 people died in the crackdown; the government put the death toll at 187.

Uzbekistan also is frequently denounced by human rights groups and Western governments for torture and repression of the opposition.

Uzbekistan’s July 29 withdrawal order came just hours after hundreds of Uzbeks who had fled to Kyrgyzstan after the Andijan uprising were relocated to Romania, a staunch U.S. ally, by the U.N. refugee agency.

The base has been a critical staging point for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan since the earliest days of the war, which began in October 2001. More recently, it has been used to move supplies and humanitarian aid, into northern Afghanistan. It also is a refueling point for transport planes.

AP-ES-08-26-05 1757EDT

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