Afghan-Uzbek 'Friendship Bridge' Reopens

A bridge that is a crucial supply route into Afghanistan will reopen within days, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Uzbek President Islam Karimov announced Saturday.

Powell said he understood that the "Friendship Bridge" would open Sunday, but Karimov indicated it might take a little longer.

The bridge has been closed since 1996. U.S. officials have long awaited its reopening to speed up the delivery of food and medical supplies into northern Afghanistan.

"This will ease the flow of humanitarian aid," Powell said.

The bridge could also provide a route for military supplies and, if necessary, troops. There are up to 1,500 U.S. troops stationed in this former Soviet republic.

"The opening of this bridge is very important from a political, economic and humanitarian standpoint," Karimov said.

At a joint news conference, Powell said "the president has confirmed the bridge will open tomorrow."

But Karimov said a state committee would meet on Sunday to work out technical matters, such as custom procedures. Sources in the Uzbekistan foreign ministry, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said it would likely be about a week before the span actually opens to traffic.

Powell aides, however, said Karimov left the clear impression in his meeting with Powell the bridge would open Sunday.

The bridge was built by the Soviets in 1986 to help them resupply their invasion forces inside Afghanistan. Later, they used it as an escape route. It has been closed since 1996.

Reopening has been complicated by unpleasant public memories of the Soviet use of the bridge as an invasion route, and because conditions remain dangerous on roads south of the bridge.

After leaving Uzbekistan, Powell flew to Kazakstan. A snowstorm forced him to cancel a planned half-day interim stop in nearby Kyrgyzstan.

Powell's visit was intended to thank the three central Asian countries, all former Soviet republics, for their help in the war against terrorism, and to encourge better ties with the Muslim nations in the future.

Uzbekistan has "been an important member of this coalition against terrorism, and I'm certain they will continue to be," Powell said. "I assured the president our interests in this country and region go far beyond the current crisis in Afghanistan."

Powell said that President Bush had invited Karimov to the United States at an unspecified date in the near future. Karimov said he would accept.

Powell mixed his praise of Karimov's government in the anti-terror fight with a gentle prod, noting that "we have areas where we disagree," including on the pace of democratic reform.

During a question-and-answer session, Karimov suggested that his region was getting too much of the blame for being a breeding ground for terrorists.

Terrorists cells, he said, have been flourishing in London and other European cities.

"The extremist organizations feel very comfortable there, raise funds and channel them to hot spots around the world," Karimov said.

Powell also visited a classroom workshop in Tashkent and observed a gathering of students aged 11-17 learn about democracy by holding a mock student-council election. Powell announced the winners from the ballot box results.

"The whole structure of democracy rests on voting," he told the students.