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China says it backs beleaguered Uzbek president
Updated: 2005-05-24 19:51

BEIJING - China declared on Tuesday its support for Uzbekistan's government, which has been grappling with unrest in the east of the country, a day ahead of a visit by Uzbek President Islam Karimov.

Clashes between protesters and troops erupted in the Uzbek town of Andizhan in mid-May and witnesses said more than 500 people had been killed when troops moved to end a protest against what many saw as an unfair trial of a group of local businessmen.

The Uzbek government puts the death toll at 169 and says they were killed when troops fought organizers of a revolt.

"As to what happened in Uzbekistan recently, it is basically a domestic affair, but we firmly support the crackdown on the three forces of separatism, terrorism and extremism by the Uzbekistan government," Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan told a news conference.

China has been concerned about separatism among its Turkic-speaking ethnic Uighur minority in the far-western Xinjiang region and is wary of unrest on its borders.

It temporarily closed a crossing between Xinjiang and Kyrgyzstan in March when opposition forces seized power after days of violent protests.

"We support the efforts by the Uzbekistan government to stabilize the domestic situation and to engage in national development," Kong said.

He added that fighting separatism, terrorism and extremism was a key goal of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. China has played a major role in this Central Asia security forum, in part because it sees the region as a strategically important source of oil.

Karimov is due to meet Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao on his visit, which runs until Friday.

Karimov, who has ruled Uzbekistan since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, has been criticized for the slow pace of reform in the country. He has defended his rule by saying Islamic fundamentalists want to overthrow his government.

He is also a key U.S. ally in its fight against Taliban and al Qaeda remnants in neighboring Afghanistan.

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