Friday, February 6, 2009

Kyrgyzstan expells US Air Force base

Al-Manar reports: Kyrgyzstan said Friday its decision to shut a U.S. air base was final, dealing a blow to Washington's efforts to retain what has been a major staging post for US occupation forces fighting in Afghanistan.

Thursday, the United States said it was still in talks with Kyrgyzstan about keeping the Manas base in the mainly Muslim, impoverished former Soviet republic and traditional Russian ally. "The decision has been made," said Kyrgyz government spokesman Aibek Sultangaziyev. "The U.S. embassy and the (Kyrgyz) Foreign Ministry are exchanging opinions on this, but there are no discussions on keeping the base."

Kyrgyzstan's stance has set a tough challenge for new U.S. President Barack Obama, who plans to send additional troops to Afghanistan to try and boost NATO efforts to defeat Taliban and al Qaeda insurgents.

The United States, also seeking to reinforce supply routes to Afghanistan that bypass Pakistan where convoys face security risks, says it is still hopeful the base can be retained. "We're still very much engaged," said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman.

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced the closure of the base earlier this week after securing more than $2 billion in financial aid and credit from Russia during talks in Moscow.

Russia, irked by the U.S. military presence in Kyrgyzstan which it regards as part of its strategic sphere of interest, has long exerted pressure on the small, landlocked and mountainous Central Asian country to evict the U.S. forces.

NATO says it is concerned about Russia's possible involvement in the Kyrgyz decision. Moscow, which operates its own military base in Kyrgyzstan, has strongly denied any link between its aid package and the move to shut Manas.

Asked if Washington had made any additional offers over the base, Kyrgyz Prime Minister Igor Chudinov said: "We have not received any proposals." He says Kyrgyzstan wants to shut the base because it disagrees with U.S. methods in Afghanistan.

A Western diplomatic source said Thursday the United States was close to a deal with Kyrgyzstan's neighbor Uzbekistan that would allow Washington to open a new supply route for its troops in Afghanistan.