Fri, Aug 17, 2007 - Page 5 News List

SCO leaders hail group's growing political might

AFP , BISHKEK

The leaders of China, Russia and four Central Asian states touted their growing military and political strength yesterday in a firm challenge to US attempts at gaining influence in the strategic region.

Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and Russian President Vladimir Putin, together with the leaders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, gathered just outside the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek for the annual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

Speaking in a new conference center built by Chinese contractors under the shining backdrop of the snow-covered Tien Shan mountains, Putin described the SCO as a budding force.

"Year after year the SCO becomes a more significant factor in strengthening security and stability in the Central Asian region," he said.

Anti-terrorism, anti-narcotics, the environment and economic development, with a focus on transport links, topped the agenda at the one-day talks.

Today all six leaders are to fly to Russia to attend the climax of SCO military maneuvres held in the Ural Mountains area.

Many analysts see the SCO as an anti-Western club aiming to stem inroads by the US and its allies, as well as the NATO military alliance, in an oil- and gas-rich region that China and Russia consider their backyard.

The SCO, founded six years ago, publicly denies such an agenda.

However, calls for a "multi-polar world," repeated by several leaders yesterday, reflect opposition to US domination on the international stage.

"We are convinced that ... any attempts to resolve global and regional problems alone are useless," Putin said, in a barely disguised swipe at Washington.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, attending as an observer, used the summit to lash out at US "interference" and claimed that US plans to build a missile defense shield in central Europe threatened most of Asia.

"It concerns most of the continent, Asia, the members of the SCO," he said, according to a Russian translation broadcast by organizers.

With US influence waning in parts of Central Asia, and NATO forces struggling to suppress Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan, the SCO is gaining clout.

In 2005 the US was forced to close a military base in Uzbekistan and now Kyrgyzstan is under pressure to end the US lease of an air base outside Bishkek. Russia says it wants to expand its own air base near the capital.

That military capability will be underlined today when the leaders attend joint exercises near Russia's Chelyabinsk, the first in the SCO's history to involve servicemen from all member states.

Dubbed "anti-terrorism exercises," the maneuvres involve some 6,500 troops and heavy weapons in taking control of a built-up area.

Critics, who see the SCO as a bastion against Western pressure for democratic development in the region, have described the scenario as training for repression of ethnic or civil unrest.

Putin praised the developing military capability and proposed "raising the SCO's capability in the security sphere" with regular military training exercises.

He also suggested the SCO organize a conference on development aid for Afghanistan. Later yesterday Putin was to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who was also attending the summit as a guest.

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