US smooths Kyrgyzstan ties after rights row

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Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) (AFP) - US Secretary of State John Kerry carefully negotiated a delicate first day of his Central Asia tour on Saturday, patching up a human rights row with Kyrgyzstan.

The senior US diplomat's visit to all five "'Stans", the landlocked former Soviet republics in Russia's Asian back yard, began in one of the most suspicious of US influence.

In an incident emblematic of this mistrust, Kyrgystan was outraged in July when Kerry's State Department gave jailed activist Azimjon Askarov a human rights award.

Askarov has been hailed by human rights defenders for his work exposing torture in Kyrgyz jails and violence against ethnic Uzbeks, but his home government jailed him for life.

He has been convicted of organising violent protests and accused of involvement in the death of a policeman.

The United States has deep concerns about human rights in Kyrgyzstan but Kerry, keen to move past the row, tried to explain away the offence the award caused his hosts.

At a news conference after talks with President Almazbek Atambayev and Foreign Minister Erlan Abdyldaev, Kerry said the prize had been to reward Askarov's lifetime of work.

It was not, he said, related to the disputed incident, which he said he could not speak about.

"And I regret that it did result in some concerns," he said, insisting that the United States had no intention of interfering in Kyrgystan's domestic security concerns.

"We have discussed this very frankly, very openly, and all of us want to move on," he said, adding that human rights was a founding value of the United States.

Abdyldaev confirmed the topic had been discussed at length and that he expected his government to return to it again, but said the countries would cooperate more closely.

- Cold War rumours -

The minister, whom Kerry referred to as "my friend Erlan", also attended the opening ceremony of a new building for the US embassy in Bishkek, itself a controversial project.

"We believe that the time has come to develop an optimal model of relations between Kyrgyzstan and the United States, in full compliance with the principles of equality and mutual respect," he said at the event.

Kerry hailed the building as a "21st century embassy with which to implement a 21st century partnership" but its construction was the subject of some Cold War-style rumours.

During the embassy's construction, some Kyrgyz and Russian media alleged that 152 tonnes of building materials flown into the country concealed supplies for a secret plot.

The varying theories, dismissed as false and irresponsible by the embassy, suggested Washington was smuggling in cash or weapons to mount a revolt against the government.

Abdyldaev was all smiles on Saturday as he joined Kerry to open the embassy, but the reports reflect the level of suspicion in the region towards US motives.

Kyrgyzstan was the first leg of a trip that will take Kerry to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, to reassure leaders of Washington's good intentions.

Already faced with a dramatic economic slowdown, Central Asian governments fear the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan will end Washington's interest in the region.

- US airbase closed -

Until last year Kyrgyzstan was home to a massive US airbase, hub of the "northern distribution network" for NATO troops fighting in its southern neighbour.

The base closed last year and the Afghan operation has been dramatically scaled back, cutting off a huge source of foreign income for the Central Asian state.

Combined with a drop in the price of the region's oil exports and sanctions against its major economic partner Russia, the five republics are facing a squeeze.

This may in turn feed social unrest in a region with an unenviable recent history of brutal government repression, partly in response to fears of Islamist insurgency.

Of the five largely autocratic nations, Kyrgyzstan is the only one running an experiment in parliamentary democracy and it sets an example Washington is keen to support.

A senior US official travelling with Kerry said a recent election had been "very robust and competitive" and noted that eight parties are now represented in parliament.

On Sunday, Kerry is due to travel on to the ancient citadel of Samarkand in Uzbekistan to inaugurate a new diplomatic format for engaging with the region.

US and Central Asian officials hope the so-called "C5+1" will become a regular a meeting between the secretary of state and all five of the region's foreign ministers.

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