Astana, Kazakstan U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld met with the rulers of two former Soviet republics in Central Asia on Sunday to bolster support for the war in nearby Afghanistan and for U.S. efforts to deny new sanctuaries for al-Qaida fighters.
Rumsfeld stopped in Turkmenistan to see President Saparmurat Niyazov and then flew to Kazakstan's capital for talks with President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Kazakstan's defense chief, Gen. Col. Mukhtar Altynbayev, said his government planned to increase its involvement in Afghanistan. He mentioned transporting and donating humanitarian aid, and working out an agreement so U.S. and allied aircraft could use at least one Kazak airfield in the event of emergency. Kazakstan already allows coalition aircraft to use its airspace.
"Kazakstan confirmed its desire and its real participation in the struggle against terrorism," the defense chief, speaking through an interpreter, said at a news conference at the presidential palace. Rumsfeld was at his side.
Kazakstan also will send at least three military officers to U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Florida, to coordinate the humanitarian aid work for Afghanistan, Altynbayev said.
Rumsfeld said Kazakstan plays an important role in the international coalition against terrorism.
"We are anxious to do everything we possibly can to see that Afghanistan does not go back to becoming a haven for terrorists or sanctuary for terrorists," Rumsfeld said.
In Turkmenbashi, a port city on the Caspian Sea, Rumsfeld thanked Niyazov for allowing U.S. and allied planes to use Turkmen airspace and for its role in supporting humanitarian aid to Afghanistan.
"Their humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan have undoubtedly saved lives of Afghan people," he said.
In their session at Niyazov's gated, heavily guarded palace on the shores of the Caspian, Rumsfeld also met with his Turkmen counterpart, Redzhebai Arazov, and Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov.
Reporters accompanying Rumsfeld on his Central Asia tour were not allowed into Niyazov's palace.
About one-third of all food aid reaching Afghanistan since the United States launched its war in October against the Taliban militia and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network has gone through Turkmenistan, which shares a border with Afghanistan.
Rumsfeld said he and Niyazov did not discuss bin Laden or al-Qaida.
Niyazov, whose portrait is ever-present in his impoverished desert nation of 5 million people, refers to himself as Turkmenbashi, which means head of the Turkmens. A few years ago, he took that name for the city that had been known as Krasnovodsk.
The only U.S. military presence in Turkmenistan is a small group of troops that operate refueling aircraft for cargo planes that carry aid into Afghanistan.
The United States has a limited military relationship with Turkmenistan, although the two interact as a result of Turkmenistan's membership in NATO's Partnership for Peace program.
On Monday, Rumsfeld was to meet with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov in Moscow to discuss the war on terrorism, progress toward an arms control agreement and preparations for U.S. President George W. Bush's meeting with President Vladimir Putin in late May.
Turkmenistan was the third stop on a Central Asian tour that began Friday in Kyrgyzstan, whose Manas airport has become a major staging base for American and allied combat and support flights into Afghanistan.
On Saturday, Rumsfeld took a whirlwind tour of Afghanistan.
He started at Bagram Air Base, where he urged U.S. and allied troops to be prepared for a long war against terrorism. In Kabul, the Afghan capital, Rumsfeld met with the head of the interim government, Hamid Karzai, and his top aides.
Rumsfeld finished his Afghan visit in the western city of Herat, where he saw Ismail Khan, the warlord who calls himself the emir of western Afghanistan and has close ties to neighboring Iran.