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US planes land in ex-Soviet bases for possible Afghan attack

Reposted from AFP newswire.
TASHKENT, Sept 22 (AFP) - US warplanes have landed in the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan as Russian President Vladimir Putin, after an extended silence, voiced readiness to cooperate with US plans to strike Afghanistan -- but only after they are approved by the UN Security Council.

Uzbek military sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP on Saturday that the US jets were stationed just outside the Uzbek capital Tashkent and were equipped with surveillance devices, presumably aimed at Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia just to the south.

The sources refused to disclose the number of aircraft or when they had arrived, although Uzbek officials had previously denied that they were willing to cooperate with a US attack in reprisal for the Taliban's refusal to hand over suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden.

It has further emerged that heavily armed US attack helicopters are still stationed on a military base some 40 kilometers (25 miles) east of Tashkent, following joint NATO-Uzbek military exercises in the region this month.

US use of former Soviet bases has been busily debated in Moscow, which has pronounced itself ready to join a world anti-terrorism campaign, but still worries that NATO forces will permanently root themselves in the lucrative Central Asian region should Russia agree to a joint attack.

In a sign that the two sides were starting to bridge their positions, Putin and US President George W. Bush held a 40-minute telephone consultation on the issue late Saturday Moscow time, although the Kremlin refused to disclose any details of the talks.

The Russian leader -- whose generals have previously refused to grant US troops any access to Central Asian countries labeled by Moscow as the "near abroad" -- emerged from a near-silence at his Black Sea retreat to voice a mixed message for Washington.

Putin was further holding late-night consultations on the crisis with his most senior security officers at the Sochi base late Saturday, senior Kremlin sources told AFP.

Earlier, speaking ahead of his Tuesday visit to Berlin, Putin hinted in an interview to Germany's ARD television that while Russia was cautious, it was willing to negotiate a joint response to the terror strikes in the United States.

"This does not mean that we cannot discuss such questions together with our partners, think about the possible reaction to the terrorist acts," said Putin in remarks aired nationwide on Moscow television on Saturday.

Putin said Russia's possible level of participation would be decided "based on the level and character of our partnership with the US and NATO."

These comments coincided with those recently made by senior Russian officials, who claim to have Putin's ear, who in private said that Moscow would be willing to offer its full cooperation in a new US war should Russia be accepted as a member of NATO.

The same senior Russian officials have said that NATO discussions were far more important than any debates on US plans to build a missile defense shield, an issue that has been the top priority for talks between Moscow and Washington for months.



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