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ALMATY (Reuters) - Uzbekistan strongly welcomed U.S. President Barack Obama's call for a "new beginning" in ties between Washington and the Muslim world, signaling a departure from the Central Asian state's usual anti-Western sentiment.
Lying on a new supply route for U.S. troops fighting in neighboring Afghanistan, mainly Muslim Uzbekistan ceased contacts with the United States after a row over human rights in 2005 and closed a key U.S. military base in Central Asia.
Breaking with its tradition of fierce anti-Western sentiment, the former Soviet republic praised a speech Obama delivered at Cairo University last week as pragmatic and sober.
"This sober and realistic approach to solving key issues will definitely attract positive feedback from the international community," its official Jahon news agency said on its Web site.
"It shows willingness to find new bridges between the United States and Muslims around the world in the name of everyone's interests, justice and progress," the agency, run by the Uzbek Foreign Ministry, said late on Monday.
President Islam Karimov, long criticized in the West for not allowing dissent and locking up political opponents, has agreed to help anti-Taliban efforts in Afghanistan by allowing NATO forces to transport non-lethal cargo through its territory.
This change of diplomatic attitude is a worry to Russia which sees Central Asia, and its most populous nation Uzbekistan in particular, as part of its traditional sphere of interest where the U.S. military presence is not welcome.
In a move harking back to the 19th century diplomatic shadow-boxing between the Russians and the British in the region, the so-called Great Game, Russia scored an important win this year when another key Central Asian nation, Kyrgyzstan, ordered U.S. troops to shut a military base on its land.
Kyrgyzstan announced its decision in February after securing pledges of $2 billion in aid and credit from Russia. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has sent a personal appeal to Kyrgyzstan asking its leadership to abandon the plan.
The United States and other Western nations condemned Uzbekistan in 2005 after its troops fired on protesters in the town of Andizhan, killing hundreds, according to witnesses.
Uzbekistan has rejected all criticism, saying it was a riot organized by Islamist extremists seeking to topple Karimov and set up a Islamist state in Central Asia.
In a further sign of warming ties, Karimov met U.S. ambassador Richard Norland last week to discuss security.
"The gist of these new approaches (voiced by Obama) lies in the fact that it is counter-productive to impose values on other nations," Jahon said. "It is crucial to be a good example for others to follow while defending democracy, rule of law, freedom of speech and religion as a set of values important to all."
Editing by Jon Hemming