Uzbekistan resists as U.S. seeks to rally Central Asians against China

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U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Uzbekistan Foreign Minister Kamilov Abdulaziz Khafizovich in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, February 3, 2020. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/Pool

(Reuters) – Uzbekistan on Monday gently resisted Washington’s efforts to rally China’s central Asian neighbors against Beijing over its treatment of Muslim minorities, a contentious issue for the region which has close economic ties to China.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in the region to discuss the issue with Beijing’s neighbors who have so far refrained from any criticism of Chinese policies.

“We want to see Central Asia as a region of stable development, prosperity and cooperation, and we would really not like to feel on ourselves unfavorable political consequences in relation to some competition in our region between large powers,” Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov said.

Pompeo’s comments put the region’s governments in an awkward position as they rely on China for much of their foreign trade and investment.

Speaking on a visit to the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, Pompeo said he would raise the Uighur issue with counterparts from all five ex-Soviet Central Asian nations – Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

“As I did in Kazakhstan yesterday, in my private meetings today I plan to discuss… the Chinese Communist Party’s repression of Uighur Muslims, Kazakhs, and members of other minority groups in Xinjiang,” Pompeo told a briefing.

On Sunday, Pompeo said Washington urged “all countries to join us in pressing for an immediate end to this repression” and provide safe refuge and asylum to those seeking to flee China.

The United Nations and human rights groups estimate between 1 million and 2 million people, mostly ethnic Uighur Muslims, have been detained in harsh conditions as part of what Beijing calls an anti-terrorism campaign.

China has repeatedly denied any mistreatment of Uighurs and says the camps provide vocational training. It describes the detainees as students.

Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov in Almaty, editing by Ed Osmond

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