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Asia Crisis

US envoy: no plans to reopen Uzbek Afghan air base

* U.S. envoy ends first tour of ex-Soviet Central Asia

* Rules out re-deploying personnel to Uzbekistan

ASTANA, Feb 21 (Reuters) - The United States is not looking to re-open a key military base in Uzbekistan that was shut in 2005 in a diplomatic row, a U.S. envoy said on Sunday as he ended a rapid tour of former Soviet Central Asia.

Uzbekistan, which shares a border with Afghanistan, evicted U.S. troops from the Karshi-Khanabad base after Washington condemned it over a violent crackdown on a protest in the town of Andizhan in May 2005.

Relations have since improved, and some diplomats have suggested Washington may try to re-open the base.

Speaking after a visit to Uzbekistan, Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke ruled out the possibility when asked about it in neighbouring Kazakhstan.

"No," he said. "But Uzbekistan does provide us with a valuable opportunity to transit materials to Afghanistan and that is important. (As for) the military base - no."

Keen to restore its sour relations with the West, Uzbekistan -- Central Asia's most populous and ethnically divided nation -- has agreed to host the new NATO supply route for Afghanistan.

Holbrooke met Uzbek President Islam Karimov on Friday and has also visited Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan during his first trip to the region in his current capacity. (([ID:nLDE61J03E]))

The United States, which has a military air base in Kyrgyzstan, has stepped up its presence in Central Asia since the start of the Afghan campaign in 2001, squeezing Russia in a region Moscow sees still as its traditional sphere of interest.

Once fiercely critical of Uzbekistan's human rights record, the United States and its allies have softened their stance in past years, shifting their focus more to security issues.

Last year the European Union angered international human rights groups by lifting sanctions it imposed on Uzbekistan after troops shot hundreds of protesters in Andizhan.

Addressing Holbrooke in Kazakhstan, the region's biggest economy with close investment ties with U.S. oil companies, Kazakh Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabayev said the Central Asian nation was ready for more cooperation.

He added: "Kazakhstan has always been there for the United States as a solid strategic partner since September 11, 2001." (Writing by Maria Golovnina, editing by Tim Pearce)

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