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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 October, 2004, 08:25 GMT 09:25 UK
Nato tours strategic Central Asia
By Monica Whitlock
BBC correspondent in Tashkent

Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev, left, speaks, while NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer listens, in Byshkek, Tuesday, Oct. 19,  2004
Jaap de Hoop Scheffer (R) is on a whirlwind tour of the region
The secretary general of Nato is touring Central Asia in a sign of the region's growing importance since US troops went into Afghanistan in 2001.

Jaap de Hoop Scheffer is currently in Uzbekistan, one of the five countries he is visiting in as many days.

In each he is discussing issues ranging from military reform to access routes to Nato troops based in Afghanistan.

Nato has made it clear that it sees Central Asia as an area to watch closely.

It has just appointed a special representative for the region, Robert Simmons of the US State Department.

The 11 September attacks on the US brought Central Asia onto the world security stage because of its proximity to Afghanistan.

US troops used Uzbekistan as their springboard for their Afghan operations and still maintain an airbase here, the supply hub for troops on the Afghan side.

But Afghanistan is increasingly not the only issue here.

The Central Asian countries themselves present several different challenges for the international community - from Kazakhstan, with its great potential in oil wealth, to Tajikistan, now one of the world's main transit corridors for heroin smugglers.

Uzbekistan is perhaps the most immediate concern.

For years a slow-moving, peaceful place, Uzbekistan is now highly unpredictable.

Suicide bombers have struck several times this year, including at the US embassy in the capital, Tashkent.

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