February 4, 2009 / 10:14 AM / 10 years ago

Kyrgyzstan starts moves to close U.S. airbase

BISHKEK (Reuters) - Kyrgyzstan’s government asked parliament on Wednesday to approve the closure of a U.S. military air base which supplies U.S.-led troops fighting in Afghanistan.

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev (R) talks to his Kyrgyz counterpart Kurmanbek Bakiyev during a signing ceremony in Moscow February 3, 2009. Kyrgyzstan's president said on Tuesday the United States must close its military base in the Central Asian country, once seen as a key support centre for U.S. operations in nearby Afghanistan. Bakiyev made his statement after receiving a promise of more than $2 billion in credit and aid from Russia to assist his impoverished country. REUTERS/Alexander Nemenov/Pool

The decision by the Central Asian state, a former Soviet republic and a traditional Russian ally, sends a tough signal and challenge to new U.S. President Barack Obama as he plans to send additional troops to Afghanistan.

But Moscow said it would be flexible to U.S. requests to transit supplies across Russia. It gave no details.

The Manas base is an important staging post for the U.S.-led military campaign against the Taliban and becomes more so as Washington seeks to reinforce supply routes that bypass Pakistan, where supply convoys face security risks.

Analysts said the move could be a signal to Obama that Moscow wants to ensure it is consulted in any diplomatic decisions in a region where it has traditional influence but the United States has sought to increase its presence.

“I have a feeling Russia wants to offer a new format for cooperation, in which Russia will speak on behalf of the region in contacts with the United States,” said Arkady Dubnov, an independent analyst.

“Bargaining could be conducted on this footing.”

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev said the base would be shut after he secured Russian financial aid at talks in Moscow on Tuesday.

Adakhan Madumarov, secretary of the Kyrgyz Security Council, said in Moscow the U.S. military would be given 180 days to close its operations and leave once the two sides had exchanged formal diplomatic notes outlining the intention.

Moscow denied any connection between the $2 billion package to combat an economic crisis — the equivalent of about half of Kyrgyzstan’s gross domestic product — and Bishkek’s decision.

“That was a sovereign and very well thought over decision of the Kyrgyz leader,” said Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Grigory Karasin.

U.S. SUPPLY ROUTES

Closing Washington’s only military outpost in Central Asia would pose a challenge for U.S. supply lines in the region, particularly after militants severed the main route into Afghanistan by blowing up a bridge in Pakistan this week.

The U.S. State Department said by early Wednesday it had still not been informed officially of the decision.

“We have seen many statements in the media but we have not received any notification through the appropriate diplomatic channels on this,” said spokesman Gordon Duguid.

Many in Kyrgyzstan have criticized the presence of U.S. troops, prompting Washington to explore possibilities in other parts of Central Asia including Uzbekistan which evicted U.S. troops in 2005. Ties have eased since then.

Moscow, which operates its own airbase in Kyrgyzstan a few dozen kilometers away from Manas, has been irritated by Manas’s existence and has put pressure on Kyrgyzstan to close it, though on Wednesday said it would offer the U.S. support.

“We positively reacted to the request of the United States for the transit through Russia of goods and materials to Afghanistan,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin told reporters.

“We will be flexible in many other ways which will support our joint success in Afghanistan — that would be the basic school of thinking from which we will proceed.”

BUSINESS AS USUAL

Outside Bishkek, business appeared to go on as usual at the airbase, viewed from behind a ring of barbed wire encircling the facility, home to more than 1,000 U.S. military personnel.

At its main gate, three servicemen, all clad in uniforms and looking stern, refused to talk to reporters as they verified registration plates on vehicles entering the base.

Outside Manas, surrounded by swathes of empty, snow-blanketed land, a Kyrgyz sheep herder said he supported closing the base — partly because he wanted more grazing land.

“I support this move. We think this airbase only harms our nature,” said Ulan, a bearded man of about 50.

Although many Kyrgyz have mixed feelings about the presence of U.S. troops, particularly after a U.S. airman shot dead a Kyrgyz man in a 2006 incident, Bakiyev critics said the nation could ill-afford to lose such an important ally as Washington.

U.S. officials said while the Manas base was important, any decision to close it would not halt operations in Afghanistan.

The United States has 32,000 troops in Afghanistan and U.S. officials have said the planned build-up could grow to include as many as 30,000 troops over the next 12 to 18 months.

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