BEIJING (Reuters) - China has lost a “true friend” with the death of Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov, Chinese President Xi Jinping said on Saturday in a message of condolence to a country Beijing considers an important partner in its war on terror.
Karimov, 78, had served as authoritarian president of ex-Soviet Uzbekistan from the moment it became independent from the Soviet Union. He had been in hospital after suffering a stroke.
He will be buried on Saturday in his home city of Samarkand.
China has long been concerned at links between Islamist militants in Central Asia and those Beijing accuses of promoting separatism in the violence-prone far western region of Xinjiang.
Xi, in a message sent to acting President Nigmatilla Yuldoshev and carried by China’s Foreign Ministry, said Karimov had made “historic contributions” to the country’s development and prosperity.
“President Karimov dedicated himself over a long period to friendly Sino-Uzbek cooperation and put painstaking efforts into developing an all-round, strategic partnership and increasing the traditional friendship between the two peoples,” Xi said.
“Karimov’s unfortunate passing is not only a huge loss to the Uzbek people, but also means the Chinese people have lost a true friend,” he added.
China wants to continue working hard to consolidate and deepen the two countries’ cooperation and friendly relations, Xi said in the brief message.
Xi visited Uzbekistan in June, where state media said both nations agreed to deepen their counter-terrorism cooperation, and ensure the safety of pipelines into China from Central Asia which are vital for Chinese energy security.
Hundreds of people have been killed over the past few years in resource-rich Xinjiang, strategically located on the borders of central Asia, in unrest between the Muslim Uighur people who call the region home and ethnic majority Han Chinese.
The government has blamed the violence on Islamist militants, though rights groups and exiles say anger at Chinese controls on the religion and culture of Uighurs is more to blame for the unrest. China denies any repression in Xinjiang.
Uzbekistan is a member of the Chinese and Russia-lead Shanghai Cooperation Organisation security bloc, one of whose key roles is to tackle Islamist violence.
Uzbekistan shares a border with Afghanistan and has become a target for Islamist militants. It is also a major cotton exporter and is rich in gold and natural gas.
Long criticised by the West and human rights groups, Karimov ruled Uzbekistan from 1989, first as the head of the local Communist Party and then as president of the newly independent republic from 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed.
Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Kim Coghill