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U.S. will respect Russia interests in C.Asia-Rice

MOSCOW, Oct 15 (Reuters) - U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice, in an interview published on Monday, assured Russia that Washington did not aim to use its military operations against Afghanistan to reduce Russian influence in Central Asia.

Russian commentators have expressed concern that any prolonged operation by U.S. forces using the former Soviet Central Asian states as a springboard would erode Russian influence in a region of strategic interest.

Rice, in an interview published in Izvestia, said: "I want to stress this: our policy is not aimed against the interests of Russia. We do not harbour any plans aimed at squeezing Russia out of there.

"We know that the Russian leadership has serious interests in this region," Rice said in comments published in Russian.

Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, both allies of Moscow through the Russia-led Commonwealth of Independent States, are among former Soviet Central Asian states to have opened their air space and offered facilities to U.S. forces.

Rice said she expected a meeting between U.S. President George W. Bush and Russia's Vladimir Putin, scheduled for later this month in Shanghai, to focus on the fight against international "terrorism" in the wake of the hijacked airliner attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"We have been brought closer together by the threat of international terrorism. This theme will of course be a priority at the meeting in Shanghai," she said.

Rice praised Russia's contribution to the U.S.-led "anti-terrorist coalition," but obliquely suggested Washington hoped for even more help in the future.

Referring to Russia's offer to share intelligence, open its air space for humanitarian aid and help in search and rescue operations in Afghanistan, she said: "We cannot ask more."

But she added: "I assume that new areas for broadening the struggle against international terrorism will appear in which our countries will be able to cooperate successfully."

Rice said she believed a separate summit between Bush and Putin due to take place at Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, next month would still go ahead despite security fears.

Russian media have cast doubt over whether the meeting would be held in the aftermath of the September 11 U.S. attacks and differences over Washington's missile shield programme.

But Rice said the main worry was over the weather.

"Everything remains in place both as regards the part of President Putin's stay in Washington and as regards his trip to Crawford," Rice said.

"I don't think there is any basis for changing this plan...The people organising the visit are more concerned about the weather reports for the middle of November. But we hope the weather will be good," she said.

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