EU financial aid to Uzbekistan won't be reduced despite crackdown

The European Union won't suspend or reduce its financial aid to Uzbekistan despite a government crackdown on protesters that is feared to have left hundreds dead, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said Monday.

At a meeting of foreign ministers later in the day, the EU was expected to issue a stern call to President Islam Karimov to allow an independent investigation into the brutal suppression, but take no further measures.

"What would we achieve by suspending the aid?" asked Ferrero-Waldner ahead of the meeting.

"For the time being, there is no other way than to try and engage president Karimov in some sort of a dialogue and call for an independent investigation," she said. "We must clearly define our targets and let him know what we want."

The EU currently provides Uzbekistan annual aid worth some €10 million (US$12.6 million), most of which is destined to help fund social and economic reforms.

The 25-member bloc, alongside the U.N, the United States, NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, is putting pressure on Karimov to allow a U.N. inquiry into what it says was disproportionate use of force against civilians in the city of Andijan on May 13.

The Uzbek government troops opened fire on demonstrators after protesters stormed a prison, freed inmates and then seized local government offices, taking officials hostage.

Uzbek authorities say 169 people died in the crackdown, but opposition figures and rights activists say more than 700 were killed _ over 500 in Andijan and about 200 in nearby Pakhtabad - most of them civilians.

The riots in Andijan triggered an uprising in the nearby town of Korasuv on the border with Kyrgyzstan, where followers of Bakhtiyor Rakhimov, a farmer turned rebel leader, burned government buildings and drove away authorities. The government has reclaimed control and arrested Rakhimov, who had vowed to build an Islamic state.

"Questions about these killings will not go away until there is an independent international inquiry," said British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

Karimov has staunchly resisted calls to end the crackdown on the opposition and allow more democracy.

"There will be universal condemnation of President Karimov's refusal to accept any kind of outside inquiry into the killings that took place," Straw said, adding that an outside inquiry would be "in everybody's interest."

JAN SLIVA, Associated Press Writer

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