- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 25, 2001

MOSCOW The Russian president yesterday opened his nation's airspace to humanitarian flights by the anti-terrorist coalition led by the United States and said Central Asia governments had not ruled out the use of their air bases for Washington-led military action against Afghanistan.

In a speech on national television, Vladimir Putin also said Russia would intensify its support of Afghan opposition forces fighting the Taliban in the northeast of that country and was prepared to supply them with weapons and military equipment.

"We have coordinated this position with our allies among the Central Asian states. They share this position and do not rule out providing the use of their airfields," Mr. Putin said.

The address from the Kremlin provided Mr. Putin's most specific outline of steps his country plans to take to help the United States after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. The speech came two days after Mr. Putin spent an hour on the phone with President Bush.

"We are broadening cooperation with the internationally recognized government of Afghanistan headed by Mr. Rabbani and will render additional aid to its armed forces in the form of the supply of weapons and military equipment," Mr. Putin said.

Mr. Putin was referring to the government-in-exile of President Burhanuddin Rabbani. The Russians have already been helping the Afghan opposition, which controls about 5 percent of the territory of Afghanistan.

The Russian leader said Russia would provide active cooperation with international anti-terrorism efforts by further sharing intelligence on the infrastructure of international terrorist groups and their bases. Mr. Putin also said Russia was ready to open its airspace for humanitarian aid in case of an attack on Afghanistan.

Russia had been sending mixed signals about its attitude toward U.S. anti-terrorism plans in Central Asia. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said last week Russia would object to U.S. military strikes from what Moscow considers its strategic back yard. However, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said it was up to each of the states to make its own decision.

The Kremlin press office said yesterday it couldn't confirm whether Mr. Putin had promised military assistance to President Bush in the phone conversation Saturday.

In his speech yesterday, Mr. Putin also called for greater reliance on international organizations such as the United Nations and its Security Council in determining what steps to take against international terrorism.

The Russian leader said his position was shared by his country's allies in Central Asia. He said that these nations, which Russia considers its sphere of influence, had not ruled out providing their airfields for anti-terrorist operations.

"Other, deeper forms of cooperation between Russia and participants in the anti-terrorist operation are possible. The depth and character of this cooperation will directly depend on our relations with these countries and on mutual understanding," Mr. Putin said.

Yesterday, Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev told reporters at a news conference in the Kazak capital Astana: "We've already given our general agreement that we'll provide all necessary support. But there has been no concrete request yet."

Of the five former Soviet republics in Central Asia, Kazakhstan is the farthest from Afghanistan, the target of potential retaliatory strikes for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. Washington has expressed more interest in using bases in Uzbekistan or Tajikistan, which border Afghanistan.

The Russian Interfax news agency, quoting unidentified sources, said three U.S. Air Force transport planes had arrived in Uzbekistan last weekend carrying about 200 U.S. troops and reconnaissance equipment. Russia's RTR television also reported the arrival of U.S. forces in Uzbekistan. A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in the Uzbekistan capital, Tashkent, refused to comment on the reports.

There were no signs of American troops at the military airfield outside Tashkent, but the capital's civilian airport is now heavily guarded and open only to ticketed passengers. Asked in a Sunday interview on ABC whether troops had landed in Uzbekistan, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said, "Not to my knowledge."

There were also unconfirmed media reports that U.S. forces had landed at an air base in Tajikistan. Officials would not immediately comment on the reports.

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