Wed 4 Feb, 2009 10:44 am
Kyrgyzstan May Close Key US-Afghan Airbase
Tuesday 03 February 2009
by: Mike Eckel, The Associated Press
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.