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Putin says U.S. troops won't stay in Central Asia

MOSCOW, Dec 5 (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday he did not see the U.S. military becoming a permanent presence in ex-Soviet Central Asia, despite it using bases in the region during its campaign in Afghanistan.

"As far as I know from conversations with the leaders of Western countries, including the United States, and from the published statements of the U.S. president, they do not intend to remain there (in Central Asia) for a long time," Putin said.

And he stressed, in an interview with Greek media ahead of a visit to Athens, that the Central Asian states were now independent and had the right to make their own foreign policy decisions.

"(But) of course we are not indifferent to what will happen in this region of the world," he added in a partial transcript of the interview published on the presidential website.

Putin, worried about the growing influence of Muslim fundamentalism on his country's southern flank, has thrown his political weight behind the U.S-led coalition against international terrorism. He also effectively gave Central Asian states the green light to cooperate with the coalition.

Those states have attracted considerable U.S. attention, since Washington launched air strikes on neighbouring Afghanistan, as a convenient staging ground for the campaign.

Afghanistan's hardline Taliban have refused to hand over Saudi-born militant Osama bin Laden, the man Washington blames for the September 11 hijack attacks on the United States.

Interfax news agency quoted Putin as saying that the main task for the moment was "to put an end to the breeding ground of international terrorism in Afghanistan."

"Concrete decisions over the form of the participation of each state in the war against terrorism -- including the CIS (ex-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States) countries -- are taken independently," he added.

France and the United States are using Uzbekistan's Khanabad base, although Uzbek President Islam Karimov has said operations are limited to search and rescue and humanitarian missions.

Tajikistan said on Wednesday that advance detachments of the U.S.-led coalition had been deployed in its territory, and Kyrgyzstan has said it is ready to have coalition warplanes at one of its airbases.

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