US Forces Land in Uzbekistan amid Reports Taliban Reinforcing Border
Uzbekistan confirmed Sunday that US forces had begun to arrive at an airbase in the south of the country, near the Afghan border, amid reports the Taliban troops were massing on the frontier.
The advance party of US soldiers had arrived within 24 hours of Uzbek President Islam Karimov giving the go-ahead for the United States to use the airbase as a launch pad for humanitarian and rescue missions into Afghanistan, the Uzbek defense ministry said.
A total of around 1,000 US crack troops are expected to land at Khanabad, near Karshi, in southern Uzbekistan ahead of possible attacks by the US-led anti-terror coalition on Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia, which is harboring Saudi-born dissident Osama bin Laden.
However, Karimov has refused to let the United States use the former Soviet republic as a base for military strikes on Afghanistan despite urgings from US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who flew to Tashkent on Friday.
"The first group of US personnel arrived in Uzbekistan Saturday morning. They must prepare the airfield and the runway for the landing of US airplanes, and put the necessary equipment in place," a spokesman for the Uzbek defense ministry said Sunday.
The spokesman refused to name the airbase in question, but informed sources say it is almost certainly the modern base at Khanabad, near Karshi, about 400 kilometers southwest of the capital Tashkent, and 250 kilometers from the Afghan border.
The 1,000 elite US troops from the 10th mountain division will be used to protect humanitarian convoys and main roads, as well as to service military planes.
The Taliban is sheltering bin Laden, who is Washington's prime suspect in last month's terror attacks on New York and Washington, in which some 5,500 people died.
Uzbekistan, which shares a 130-kilometer border with Afghanistan, has emerged as a potential forward base in possible strikes against bin Laden and his hosts.
A senior military official with the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance dismissed reports Sunday that the Taliban had reinforced the Uzbek border in a bid to repel any future raids by US troops.
"We have no information confirming that additional Taliban forces have been brought into that region," Abdul Vadud, the alliance's military attaché based in neighboring Tajikistan, told AFP.
A spokesman for the Taliban earlier told the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press that some 8,000 Taliban soldiers had been positioned along the northern border with Uzbekistan, including new reinforcements -- KARSHI, Uzbekistan (AFP)
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