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World News

Q+A - Kyrgyz closure of base hurts U.S. aims

(Reuters) - Kyrgyzstan began moves on Wednesday to close a U.S. military air base in the former Soviet republic which is vital for supplying U.S.-led troops fighting in Afghanistan.

Following are some of the main issues.

WHY IS THE BASE IMPORTANT?

* Manas is the only remaining U.S. airbase in Central Asia. It has been at the centre of U.S. regional military planning since Uzbekistan evicted U.S. troops in 2005 in a row over Tashkent’s suppression of a protest in the city of Andizhan.

The base is used as a staging post for the U.S.-led military campaign against the Taliban and its role has been heightened as Washington seeks to reinforce supply routes that bypass Pakistan, where supply convoys face security risks.

WHY NOW?

* Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev made the announcement in Moscow after talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who pledged more than $2 billion (1.37 billion pounds) in loans for the country, which faces economic crisis.

The Kyrgyz announcement comes just over two weeks after the inauguration of Obama, who plans to increase troops in Afghanistan to counter the Taliban, and could be seen as an early challenge and signal from Moscow to Obama.

One political analyst in Moscow said it was “the worst moment for such move.”

WHAT IS THE IMPACT ON RUSSIAN-U.S. TIES?

* Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin have said they want to improve relations with Obama after ties hit a post-Soviet low in a row over a war in Georgia.

Analysts have said Afghanistan could be an issue on which the interests of Washington and Moscow largely coincide.

But the United States will most likely see the Kyrgyz announcement as an attempt by Moscow to check U.S. influence in Central Asia when Obama has made Afghanistan a priority.

It could dampen any optimism about better relations between Russia and the United States and could be seen as the latest attempt by Moscow to roll back strategic gains made by Washington after the Soviet Union collapsed.

But Moscow may see the action over Manas as a first gambit in efforts to review and alter the way the United States and Russia cooperate in Central Asia. Russia has suggested that itself, China and their Central Asian allies should have a stronger say in international attempts to restore peace in Afghanistan.

WHAT IS THE IMPACT ON AFGHAN OPERATIONS?

* The Pentagon has described the Manas airbase, where 1,000 personnel are based, as “hugely important” but the U.S. State Department has said operations in Afghanistan can continue without it.

The base’s closure would be unlikely to affect Obama’s plans in Afghanistan, but it could cause problems at talks.

Robert Simmons, the NATO secretary general’s special representative, said in Kyrgyzstan on Monday the base was “a vital link in our fight against international terrorism” and any decision to close it would be regrettable.

Washington would face a more complicated logistical supply chain if access to the base near Bishkek is cut just as U.S. troop numbers are set to increase from 36,000 to 60,000.

NATO has been pressing for logistical support from Russia to back up the forces of its member states in Afghanistan.

NATO spokesman James Appathurai said on Wednesday: “There are no NATO logistics going through Manas. Individual NATO countries do use it for their logistics purposes, including the United States but NATO as an organisation does not.”

Medvedev has said that Moscow and Bishkek will continue to support operations in Afghanistan, but he did not spell out how this would work.

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