South Korea, Uzbekistan agree to explore oil and gas fields

The leaders of South Korea and Uzbekistan agreed Wednesday to jointly explore and develop oil and gas fields in the Central Asian country, part of Seoul's increasing efforts to secure energy and natural resources. The two countries will collaborate on two oil fields and a gas field in Uzbekistan , and jointly develop a gas field there under agreements made at a summit between South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and Uzbek President Islam Karimov, Roh's office said.

Uzbekistan now extracts 55 billion cubic meters (about 2 trillion cubic feet) of natural gas a year. South Korea , the world's fourth-biggest importer of oil, also agreed to cooperate with Uzbekistan in developing mineral resources such as gold and zinc mines.

Seoul also pledged to give US$30 million (  25 million) in loans and US$3.28 million (  2.7 million) in aid to Uzbekistan , according to the presidential office and Foreign Ministry. "This summit ... has become an important occasion to expand the horizon of our diplomacy to the Central Asian region, which is taking on more geographical and economic significance," Roh's office said.

South Korea has numerous business interests in Uzbekistan , which is also home to some 200,000 ethnic Koreans. Earlier this month, Roh signed an energy-cooperation agreement with Nigeria and concluded another deal to collaborate in exploring two oil fields in the southern oil-rich region of the African country.

Karimov has drawn strong international condemnation for his country's alleged human rights abuses, including a crackdown last May in the city of Andijan during protests where activists said authorities killed more than 700 people. The government put the death toll at 187 and blamed Islamic extremists.

Western governments called for an outside investigation, but Karimov refused. Uzbekistan last year evicted U.S. troops from a military base in the country where they had been supporting operations in neighboring Afghanistan , reports the AP.

N.U.