TASHKENT: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pressed Uzbek President Islam Karimov on human rights and thanked him for supporting US troops in Afghanistan, during a visit to the strategically-located ex-Soviet state.
US ties with Uzbekistan have for years been a delicate balancing act as Washington seeks to encourage its government to improve its rights record while seeking Tashkent's logistical support for the war in neighbouring Afghanistan.
"We have a range of concerns about religious freedom, broader human rights issues, the need for further democratic reforms, the trafficking in persons, forced labour issue," a senior State Department official told reporters.
"The secretary noted the need for progress on these issues," the official said on condition of anonymity following Clinton's talks with Karimov in the capital Tashkent.
At the helm of the landlocked nation of 28.5 million since 1989, Karimov wields unchecked power and tolerates no dissent.
"President Karimov commented that he wants to make progress on liberalization and democratization. And he said he wants to leave a legacy of that for both his kids and his grandchildren," the senior US official said.
Ahead of Clinton's meeting with the Uzbek leader Human Rights Watch called on the top US diplomat to press Uzbekistan to release political prisoners, end torture in jails and promote civil society.
"The visit to Tashkent is the first since the administration's controversial move in September to lift longstanding restrictions on financial assistance, including military assistance, to Uzbekistan," the advocacy group said.
It said the restrictions were put in place in 2004.
The US official said the secretary also thanked Karimov for his role in allowing the transport of fuel and other non-lethal supplies to US troops in Afghanistan through a rail line to Mazar e-Sharif.
But he said the secretary did not go into specifics over US efforts to increase the flow of such supplies as Washington fears it may not always be able to count on the Pakistan route.
"We've always said that we prefer to use the Pakistan route because it's cheaper, it's shorter," the official said, recalling that the so-called Northern Distribution Network goes via the Baltic states, Russia and Kazakhstan.
"But still, it's (the northern route) a good thing to have," he added.
"And again with our (often troubled) relations with Pakistan, we always have to be prepared should they decide to either want to restrict our access or, even in the worst case, close it off," the official said.
"We would be prepared to move north through Central Asia if necessary," he said.
He said about 50 percent of all the non-lethal supplies take the northern route.
The Uzbeks however are "sensitive" about publicising the route to Afghanistan for fear that it will prompt "retribution" from the Taliban and other Islamist militants in the region, he added.
In 2005, Tashkent closed the US air base in the country which was used to support US troops in Afghanistan after US criticism of the crackdown on unrest in Andijan.
But the US official said there were no plans to hold negotiations to reopen the base. Nor were there plans, he said, to increase supplies to Afghanistan through yet another neighbour, Tajikistan, which Clinton visited earlier Saturday.
Meeting Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon earlier Saturday in Dushanbe, Clinton warned his government that its curbs on religious freedoms can spawn extremism and urged a "rethinking" of the restrictions.
Her visits were also aimed at promoting her new Silk Road project linking the economies of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan with those of Afghanistan, Pakistan and other regional countries, part of a long-term plan to boost peace and stability.
It was her first visit to Tajikistan and her second trip to Tashkent since one in December 2010.