BBC News – 2009-02-05 09:18:04
(February 4, 2009) — Kyrgyzstan’s government has submitted a decree to parliament for the closure of a key US air base in the Central Asian state, Kyrgyz officials say. The move was prompted by popular disapproval of the base, government spokesman Aibek Sultangaziyev said. US officials say they have received no notification of the closure, and are talking to the Kyrgyz government.
The air base supports US and Nato operations in Afghanistan and is the only US base in Central Asia. Its closure would be a major blow for those operations, the BBC’s Richard Galpin in Moscow says.
The announcement comes at a critical moment, just as the new administration of US President Barack Obama plans a sharp increase in the number of American troops in Afghanistan.
For Russia, on the other hand, it is a significant diplomatic victory as it seeks to reassert its influence in all former Soviet republics and beyond, our correspondent says.
“A draft decree on terminating the agreement on the US airbase has been sent to parliament,” said Aibek Sultangaziyev. “It is up to parliament now to decide when to hold discussions on this.”
The spokesman told the BBC that the United States would have six months to close down operations after the measure was approved. The move follows a statement by President Kurmanbek Bakiyev that the Manas air base would close.
President Bakiyev made his announcement on Tuesday in Moscow, where he was promised more than $2bn (£1.4bn) in Russian aid.
He said the Manas base – set up in 2001 to assist the US military operation against al-Qaeda and the Taleban in Afghanistan – was only meant to be open for two years at the most.
But perhaps more importantly, he made it clear the Americans had not been willing to pay what Bishkek regards as the right price to keep the base open, our correspondent says.
The Russian government has stepped in with a huge financial package for Kyrgyzstan – $2bn in loans and another $150m in aid.
US officials appear not to have known about Mr Bakiyev’s decision, with a US embassy spokesman telling reporters on Wednesday: “The embassy does not know anything about this at the moment.”
In a statement, the embassy said: “We have been in discussions with Kyrgyz authorities on the future of Manas air base. These discussions will continue.”
Meanwhile, Colonel Greg Julian, US spokesman in Afghanistan, told the Associated Press that Mr Bakiyev’s statement was “political positioning”.
Last month, the top US military commander for the Middle East and Central Asia, Gen David Petraeus, held talks in Bishkek about the future of Manas.
He said afterwards that the closure of the base had not been discussed.
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Published: 2009/02/04 11:03:33 GMT
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Kyrgyzstan closing US base key to Afghan conflict
By MIKE ECKEL, Associated Press Writer Mike Eckel, Associated Press Writer Tue Feb 3, 1:16 pm ET
MOSCOW – Kyrgyzstan’s president said Tuesday that his country is ending U.S. use of a key airbase that supports military operations in Afghanistan.
A U.S. military official in Afghanistan called President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s statement “political positioning” and denied the U.S. presence at the Manas airbase would end anytime soon.
Ending U.S. access would have potentially far-reaching consequences for U.S. and NATO operations in Afghanistan, where the United States is preparing to deploy an additional 15,000 troops to shut down the Taliban and al-Qaida.
It would also signal a significant victory for Moscow in its efforts to squeeze the United States out of Central Asia, home to substantial oil and gas reserves and seen by Russia as part of its strategic sphere of influence.
Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev spoke on a visit to Moscow minutes after Russia announced it was providing the poor Central Asian nation with billions of dollars in aid.
The Kyrgyz government “has made the decision on ending the term for the American base on the territory of Kyrgyzstan and this decision will be announced tomorrow or the day after,” Bakiyev said in televised comments.
Col. Greg Julian, the U.S. spokesman in Afghanistan, denied there was any change in U.S. use of the base and he noted that Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, just recently traveled there.
“I think it’s political positioning. Gen. Petraeus was just there and he talked with them. We have a standing contract and they’re making millions off our presence there. There are no plans to shut down access to it anytime soon,” he told The Associated Press.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said: “I have seen nothing to suggest, other than press reports, that the Russians are attempting to undermine our use of that facility.”
The U.S. Embassy in Kyrgyzstan was also unable to comment immediately and said a press briefing was scheduled for Wednesday morning.
The United States set up the Manas base and a base in neighboring Uzbekistan after the September 2001 terror attacks, to back operations in Afghanistan. Uzbekistan expelled U.S. troops from the base on its territory in 2005 in a dispute over human rights issues, leaving Manas as the only U.S. military facility in the region.
There are frequent U.S. flights between Manas and the main U.S. base in Afghanistan at Bagram.
Russia has long been suspicious of the U.S. presence. Russia also uses a military airbase in the ex-Soviet nation.
During his visit last month, Petraeus said that Manas would be key to plans to boost the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan. He also said the United States currently pumps a total of $150 million into Kyrgyzstan’s economy annually, including $63 million in rent for Manas.
Russia, however, agreed Tuesday to provide Kyrgyzstan with $2 billion in loans plus another $150 million in financial aid.
Central Asia is key to U.S. efforts to secure an alternative supply line to forces in Afghanistan. The main route, through the Khyber Pass in Pakistan’s northwest, has occasionally been closed in recent months due to rising attacks by bandits and Islamist militants, including one on Tuesday that destroyed a bridge.
During a trip to the region last month, which included a stop in Kyrgyzstan, U.S. Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus said America had struck deals with Russia and several Central Asian states close to or bordering Afghanistan.
NATO spokesman Eric Povel said the alliance could not comment because use of the base was an issue for the U.S. and Kyrgyzstan.
“It’s not a NATO base,” he said.
Associated Press writers Jason Straziuso in Kabul and Peter Leonard in Almaty, Kazakhstan, contributed to this report.
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