Disputed Azeri Elections No Problem Says Rumsfeld

BAKU (Reuters)–US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on Wednesday ties between Washington and Azerbaijan would continue to grow despite accusations of fraud in a presidential election in the oil-rich central Asian nation.

Rumsfeld flew to Azerbaijan after a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels–and met new President Ilham Aliyev–who was elected to replace his elderly–ailing father in a vote sharply criticized by observers and the US State Department.

He side-stepped a question about America’s view of whether the October 15 election that brought the younger Aliyev to power in the ex-Soviet republic met international standards for free and fair elections.

"The United States has a relationship with this country," Rumsfeld said.

"We value it. We have a military-to-military relationship–as well as political and economic relationships. And certainly we intend to continue that military-to-military relationship with the new administration here in this country."

At the time–the State Department said it was "deeply disappointed" in the election–marred by clashes between opposition supporters and police–and called for a probe into allegations of intimidation and ballot stuffing.

Aliyev’s main opponent argued that the outcome was fixed from the outset.

Aliyev called the United States a "strategic partner" and expressed hope for continued cooperation in military matters and the crucial energy sector. The US has hoped Azerbaijan could provide an alternative to the volatile Gulf for energy supplies.

CONSIDER THE FUTURE

Defense Minister Safar Abiyev said Azerbaijan would be willing to consider any future US proposal to base American troops in the country or allow access to bases for periodic use.

"The final decision does not fall on our part. Azerbaijan may consider this issue in the future–but what would be the final result–I could not speculate on that," Abiyev said.

The Pentagon is studying a major makeover in how US forces are arranged–with changes expected in Europe and elsewhere–although Rumsfeld said "we have nothing to announce today" when asked if US troops would deploy in Azerbaijan.

One of the concepts considered by US officials is establishing access to bases in far-flung locations without permanently placing troops there–enabling the United States to respond quickly to a hotspot without tying down troops.

Rumsfeld praised Azerbaijan as a valuable ally in Washington’s "war on terror." The United States provides $3 million annually in security assistance to Azerbaijan.

A US defense official said Azerbaijan had provided about 125 troops for military operations in Iraq and another 30 in Afghanistan.

The official said Azerbaijan also provided overflight rights to US warplanes–helping to establish an air corridor from Europe to support military operations in Central Asia.

He also said the United States was helping Azerbaijan to curb drug smuggling from Afghanistan–halt weapons trafficking and secure critical energy infrastructure.

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