U.S. Opposed Calls at NATO for Probe of Uzbek Killings

Air Force Saff Sgt. Katrina Haynie inspects a plane at the U.S. Karshi-Khanabad air base in southern Uzbekistan.
Air Force Saff Sgt. Katrina Haynie inspects a plane at the U.S. Karshi-Khanabad air base in southern Uzbekistan. (By Shad Edison -- Associated Press)
By R. Jeffrey Smith and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Defense officials from Russia and the United States last week 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 in Brussels on Thursday. 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 State Department representatives at NATO headquarters, who favored language calling for a transparent, independent and international probe into the killings of Uzbekistan civilians by police and soldiers.

State and Defense department spokesmen, asked to comment about the debate, said that Washington has one policy and that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld -- at the ministerial meeting -- verbally endorsed previous statements about the incident by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and President Bush.

Other officials said the disagreements between Defense and State officials reflect 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 has retaliated against her criticism by recently curtailing certain U.S. military flights into the air base at Karshi-Khanabad, in the country's southeast. The U.S. military considers the base a vital logistics hub in its anti-terrorism efforts.

Four sources familiar with a private discussion among the ministers on Thursday said that the Defense Department's stance on the Brussels communique's 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 ministerial meeting, is that the incident, although alarming, was "inspired" by Afghanistan.

Ivanov said it is NATO's responsibility to control terrorism there more aggressively, but added: "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, the 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 NATO-Russian 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.

Lawrence T. Di Rita, a Pentagon spokesman and Rumsfeld special assistant, said Rumsfeld was not told of the proposed communique language until he began 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.

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