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French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault attends a joint news conference with China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi (not pictured) at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing, China April 14, 2017. REUTERS/Jason Lee


TASHKENT (Reuters) - France and Uzbekistan need to strengthen security cooperation in order to combat jihadist groups and prevent violent attacks, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault told Reuters on Saturday during a visit to the Central Asian nation.

Suspected Islamist militants from the mainly Muslim ex-Soviet region of Central Asia have been blamed for two attacks this month: a metro bombing in Russia's second city, St. Petersburg, on April 3 and an attack in Stockholm on April 7, where a truck rammed a crowd of people on a busy street.

The Uzbek government said this week it had informed one of its Western partners that Rakhmat Akilov, the Uzbek national suspected of being behind the Stockholm attack, was an Islamic State affiliate.

Ayrault, who met Uzbek Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov and Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov in Tashkent, said security was on the agenda, as well as economic reforms and human rights.

"We have actively discussed terrorism and radicalization issues as both of our countries have some youth who are influenced by such groups and choose jihad," Ayrault said in an interview.

"That is why it is very necessary for us to have an exchange of information to fight against such a phenomenon. The terrorist acts that happened in St. Petersburg and Stockholm remind us of such a necessity," he said, speaking through an interpreter.

France has suffered a series of attacks by Islamist militants over the past few years that have killed scores of people. The country, which holds the first round of its presidential election on April 23, remains in a state of emergency, with army units patrolling the streets of Paris.

Ayrault said the level of cooperation between France and Uzbekistan, a country often criticised by the West in the past over its human rights record and lack of democratic freedoms, was insufficient.

"Of course, there is some level of cooperation but we need to strengthen it," he said.

Ayrault said he had also discussed in Tashkent the possibility of "displaying the rich Islamic heritage of Uzbekistan as represented by the ancient cities of Samarkand and Bukhara at the Louvre museum in Paris", describing them as an example of "enlightened Islam".

"This is just a project but I know that the Louvre curators are working on that," he said.

(Reporting by Mukhammadsharif Mamatkulov; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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