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Kyrgyzstan to close key U.S. air base

The abrupt declaration from President Kurmanbek Bakiyev comes as the U.S. prepares to deploy thousands of new troops to Afghanistan. The Kyrgyz government secures aid from Moscow.

February 04, 2009|Megan K. Stack

JULIAN E. BARNES, MOSCOW AND WASHINGTON — The president of Kyrgyzstan flew to Moscow on Tuesday, nailed down promises of debt relief and billions of dollars in aid -- and promptly announced plans to close a U.S. air base crucial to the war in Afghanistan.

The abrupt declaration from President Kurmanbek Bakiyev came as the United States prepares to deploy thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan in hopes of gaining ground against a resurgent Taliban. Kyrgyzstan has been home to the only remaining U.S. base in the strategically crucial region to Afghanistan's north.

"The Kyrgyz government has taken a decision to terminate the rent of the base," Bakiyev told reporters in Moscow after meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

Bakiyev said the U.S. military refused to pay a higher rent demanded by his government. The United States also failed to respond adequately to the 2006 killing of a Kyrgyz man by a U.S. serviceman at the base, he charged.

U.S. officials said they had not received official notice of the closure of Manas air base, and some wondered if Bakiyev's announcement was a negotiating tactic.

"We've dealt with this kind of issue with the Kyrgyz before, usually in an effort to get money from us," a senior Pentagon official said on condition of anonymity because of the confidential diplomatic negotiations. "We've always known that at some point they would become dissatisfied with the agreement we have and wish to renegotiate. And that's maybe where we are now."

Despite the decision, U.S. officials hope to find a way to continue using the base.

"We would be able to continue our operations in Afghanistan, but it is a base we would much prefer to operate with than without," said Geoff Morrell, Pentagon press secretary. "We never put all our eggs in one basket. We have multiple supply routes both by air and ground into Afghanistan. But Manas is a vitally important facility for our operation."

The United States established the air base in impoverished, mountainous Kyrgyzstan, as well as a base in neighboring Uzbekistan, after the Sept. 11 attacks to provide support for the war in Afghanistan. Uzbekistan ejected its U.S. base in 2005, indignant over U.S. complaints concerning the local government's human rights record.

"At that time, it was one or two years that were talked about. Eight years have passed," Bakiyev said Tuesday of the initial accord. "We have repeatedly raised with the United States the matter of economic compensation . . . but we have not been understood."

Russia, meanwhile, was ready to pay. The Kyrgyz president collected pledges of a $2-billion discounted loan and a $150-million grant. The Russian government also agreed to cancel Kyrgyzstan's $180-million debt and to build a hydroelectric power plant.

Relations between the United States and Russia have soured dramatically in recent years. Moscow holds economic and political sway over the former Soviet republics of Central Asia and could interfere in U.S. efforts to enlist the help of Afghanistan's neighbors.

Defense and State department officials said they did not know whether Moscow was pressuring Kyrgyzstan to stop allowing the U.S. to use the base.

A senior Pentagon official said that negotiations with the Russians on resupplying U.S. forces through their territory were continuing and that Moscow had been generally supportive of the war effort.

The U.S. has stepped up efforts to increase its northern resupply routes after an increase in attacks against logistics convoys. Militants on Tuesday blew up a bridge in Pakistan's Khyber Pass.

The U.S. may double the number of combat troops in Afghanistan, which would require expanded logistics efforts.

Viktor Kremenyuk, deputy director of the USA-Canada Institute in Moscow, said Kyrgyzstan was playing the two Cold War foes off each other in hopes of getting more aid.

"They know perfectly well that the new American president is going to reconsider seriously his strategy in Central Asia," he said. "The assets of the Central Asian nations will go up in value because the United States will need their assistance, their territories and their other assets.

"They're just saying, 'Well, we are still independent, we are still sovereign, we can go this way or the other way, so keep it in mind. If you want something from us, think about it.' "

--

megan.stack@latimes.com

julian.barnes@latimes.com

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