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Clinton seeks role for Afghanistan's neighbors
Clinton urges Afghanistan's neighbors to play role in securing, rebuilding war-torn nation
By The Associated Press

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan (AP) ' U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Saturday urged Afghanistan's Central Asian neighbors to play a role in securing and rebuilding the country as American forces withdraw over the next three years.

She also pressed authorities in the region about improving their record on human rights.

Before arriving to Uzbekistan, Clinton told an audience in Tajikistan that Afghanistan's reintegration into the regional economy would be critical to its recovery from war, as well as for better conditions in surrounding countries.

Afghanistan has been at "the crossroads for terrorism and insurgency and so much pain and suffering over 30 years," she said. "We want Afghanistan to be at the crossroads of economic opportunities going north and south and east and west, which is why it's so critical to more fully integrate the autonomies of the countries in this region in South and Central Asia."

Clinton was promoting the concept of a "new Silk Road" that would increase regional trade and commerce.

"We hope it will give rise to a network of thriving economic relationships around the region," she said. But, Clinton added, countries would have to remove or ease trade restrictions and reform commercial laws for the scheme to succeed.

On human rights, Clinton told a town hall meeting in Dushanbe that she would raise the issue with the leaders of both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

In Tajikistan, she said she spoke to President Emomali Rakhmonov about her concerns over restrictions on press and religious freedoms. In particular, she cited attempts to register certain faiths and efforts to discourage younger people from embracing the worship of their choice.

Tajikistan, a Muslim nation with a secular government, is keen to prevent its youth from adopting extremist Islamic views.

But this kind of strategy, Clinton warned, often backfires.

"It could push legitimate religious expression underground and that could build up a lot of unrest and discontent," she told reporters at a news conference with the Tajik foreign minister. "You have to look at the consequences. We don't want to do anything that breeds extremism."

U.S. officials said she would bring a similar message to Uzbek President Islam Karimov.

Clinton defended her meeting with Karimov, whose government has been accused of numerous serious rights abuses.

She said it was important to try to raise "issues of human rights and rule of law, the kind of fundamental freedoms that the U.S. strongly supports.

"If you have no contact, you have no influence and other countries will fill that vacuum that do not care about human rights and fundamental freedoms," she said. "So I would rather be raising these issues than be outside."

Human Rights Watch has called on her to link improvements to continued U.S. engagement.

Clinton was the highest-ranking American official to visit Tashkent since the U.S. last month lifted 7-year-old restrictions on assistance to the country. The restrictions were imposed because of rights abuses.

Clinton arrived in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe on Friday from stops in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where she demanded greater cooperating in dealing with militants and encouraging insurgents to talk peace.

Clinton is at the tail end of a weeklong, seven-nation overseas trip that has already taken her to Malta, Libya, Oman, Afghanistan and Pakistan. She planned to return to Washington on Sunday.

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