BEIJING -- China rolled out the red carpet for Uzbekistan's president yesterday, underscoring the importance it places on curbing the rise of Islamic militancy as it welcomed the authoritarian leader criticized in the West for a bloody crackdown on protesters.
President Islam Karimov is ''an old friend of the Chinese people," Hu Jintao, president of China, said during a meeting at the Great Hall of the People, the seat of China's legislature.
''For a long time, you've made efforts toward friendship with China. For this, we express high praise," Hu told Karimov.
Karimov responded by saying that ''China is, of course, one of the world's most important countries. We see this visit as the most new important stage in bilateral relations."
The warm welcome highlights China's focus on strategic stability in the former Soviet states of Central Asia, a region that Beijing considers a hotbed of Islamic militancy that could spread to its own territory.
Beijing also is keen to find partners in its campaign against Islamic militants -- even at the cost of playing down international concerns about the Uzbek government's use of force.
State television showed the two leaders smiling and shaking hands. Earlier, Chinese officials greeted Karimov at the Beijing airport in a red-carpet ceremony with flower bouquets.
''The peace and stability of the area is important to the environment of the border areas in China," said Professor Zhan Yao, a Central Asia specialist at the Shanghai Institute of Foreign Studies.
The May 13 protests in the eastern city of Andijan were triggered by the prosecution of businessmen charged with being sympathizers of Islamic extremists. Troops moved in and shooting broke out.
Uzbek opposition groups and human rights activists claim that more than 700 people, most of whom were unarmed civilians, were killed. If true, that would make it one of the deadliest crackdowns on protesters since the massacre in China's Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Karimov's government put the death toll at 169 and said most were militants.
Karimov has resisted calls by NATO and the European Union for an independent investigation of the events. The United States has also criticized the crackdown and said it hopes for more democracy in Uzbekistan.
But China and Russia have been more supportive.
The unrest occurred about 120 miles from China's western region of Xinjiang, which shares Uzbekistan's Muslim religion and Turkic language roots.
Chinese authorities claim Uighur separatists in the area are fighting for an independent theocratic state and are part of an international Islamic terrorist network.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan said Tuesday that China's leaders ''firmly support the efforts by the authorities of Uzbekistan to strike down the three forces of terrorism, separatism, and extremism."