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Saturday, 1 September, 2001, 19:17 GMT 20:17 UK
Central Asians celebrate their first decade
Dancers at anniversary concert in Tashkent
Uzbekistan celebrated with a colourful concert
Two former Soviet republics in Central Asia have staged lavish celebrations to mark the 10th anniversary of independence from Moscow.

In Uzbekistan's capital, Tashkent, President Islam Karimov presided over a concert which opened with hundreds of balloons being released into the sky, before traditional dances and performances by young soldiers took centre stage.


We need to be vigilant against such increasing threats as terrorism, religious extremism and fundamentalism

Uzbek President Islam Karimov

National TV carried a live broadcast of the event, at which Mr Karimov hailed Uzbekistan's achievements and pledged greater efforts to promote freedom of speech.

"The most important task today is to enrich our thinking with the principles of democratic development... and raise them to a new level," he said.

In Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, people were treated to a military parade followed by a civilian march-past, in which some 15,000 took part.

While these scenes may have been reminiscent of communist days, the festivities culminated with a sign of the more capitalist times on Bishkek's central square, where a 20-metre balloon in the colours of the DHL Worldwide Express courier company was launched into the sky.

Uzbek soldiers at Tashkent concert
On their marks for a vigilant new decade
Reality check

But even as the two countries celebrated, reality was never far away.

Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev referred to their military campaign against Islamic militants in an exchange of messages with his Uzbek counterpart.

Going beyond the usual pleasantries, he "emphasized that the peoples of both republics have been jointly fighting international terrorist bandit formations for three years", according to the InfoCentre Bishkek agency.

He also highlighted the insurgency in a televised address to the nation, concluding a list of prominent personalities with a tribute to "the heroes of armed conflicts with international terrorists on the territory of ancient Batken in 2000 and 1999".

"We must remember forever that they died a hero's death for the sake of every one of us," he urged.


The state of human rights and freedoms in Uzbekistan has worsened compared with the last years of the Gorbachev era

Uzbek opposition Birlik party leader Abdurahim Polatov

The conflict was not far from the Uzbek president's mind, either.

"We need to be vigilant against such increasing threats as terrorism, religious extremism and fundamentalism," Mr Karimov declared in his speech.

Dissenting voice

But not everybody shared the leaders' analysis of the situation.

The leader of the banned Uzbek opposition Birlik party alleged that people enjoyed less freedom now than under Soviet rule.

"The state of human rights and freedoms in Uzbekistan has worsened compared with... the last years of the Gorbachev era," Abdurahim Polatov said on Iranian radio.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov at anniversary ceremony
Freedom's guardian?
"Mosques are being closed and opposition religious officials thrown into prison on various unfounded accusations."

There were also concerns in Kyrgyzstan, long considered a beacon of democracy in the region.

Regrets

According to the Bishkek newspaper AKIpress, US Secretary of State Colin Powell's message marking the anniversary regretted "the recent backtracking on democratic principles", alluding to last October's flawed presidential election and the jailing early this year of opposition leader Feliks Kulov.

These concerns were shared by Topchubek Turgunaliyev, a human rights activist freed by the president two weeks ago, a year after being jailed for allegedly plotting to assassinate him.

Mr Turgunaliyev condemned the "so-called politicians" who praised the president for releasing him.

"This brings honour to no-one and nobody needs this," he told a news conference, reported by the local Advokat newspaper.

But he also struck a more optimistic note, hoping his freedom would pave the way for the release of Mr Kulov and other people he described as political prisoners.

"Then the image of a democratic country which Kyrgyzstan had at the beginning of the 1990s will return."

BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.

See also:

31 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Kyrgyzstan marks decade of independence
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