Luxembourg: European Union foreign ministers on Tuesday lifted a four-year-old arms embargo on Uzbekistan, but issued a one-year deadline for progress on ending human rights abuses.

According to conclusions issued following a meeting of member states in Luxembourg, the bloc removed the last remaining sanction given “positive steps” in the central Asian country.

The EU chose to override aid organisations’ concerns about the detention of jailed human rights defenders and prisoners of conscience as well as child labour issues and other democratic freedoms.

“With a view to encouraging the Uzbek authorities to take further substantive steps to improve the rule of law and the human rights situation on the ground… the council decides not to renew the remaining restrictive measures,” ministers agreed.

It added that progress would be assessed “within a year.”

The EU imposed the sanctions on Uzbekistan after Tashkent rejected a demand for an international probe into a deadly uprising in Andijan province in 2005.

Uzbek authorities say that 187 people were killed in Andijan, all due to the actions of Islamic insurgents, while international rights groups say hundreds of mainly unarmed protesters were killed.

Travel and other economic sanctions were suspended in October 2007 and lifted definitively one year ago.

The strategic, energy-rich former Soviet state is a prime target among European business leaders for infrastructure and other investment.

Human Rights Watch recently named 12 rights activists still behind bars, including four taken into detention since the travel ban was dropped, and highlighted a lack of access for United Nations inspectors probing charges of rights abuses.