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UPDATE 1-Russian ally Kyrgyzstan sets U.S. air base closure deadline

Source : REUTERS
Last Updated: Thu, Jun 20, 2013 12:10 hrs

* Bishkek says U.S. base unnecessary as NATO troops leave Afghanistan

* Russia grew wary of Western military presence in Central Asia

* Kyrgyzstan committed to Russia-led regional security blocs

By Olga Dzyubenko

BISHKEK, June 20 (Reuters) - Kyrgyzstan on Thursday gave the United States until July next year to shut its airforce base at Manas, a staging post for U.S. troops and supplies in the Afghanistan conflict but now deemed unnecessary as foreign forces pull out.

The move is likely to please Russia as it vies with the West and China for influence in the resource-rich region, once part of Soviet Central Asia.

Troops from NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) are preparing to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014, ending a costly and increasingly unpopular war launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by al-Qaeda on U.S. cities.

The Manas Transit Center outside the capital Bishkek, which numbers about 1,000 U.S. servicemen, has been in operation since the end of 2001. The Kyrgyz government said in a note issued prior to a vote in parliament: "Further functioning of this facility is unnecessary".

Parliament passed the law by 91 votes to five, setting a deadline of July 11, 2014, for the base to close.

Russia secured an extension of the lease of its own air base in Kyrgyzstan last September.

In the wake of the 2001 attacks, Moscow said it had no objections to the United States and its allies using Central Asia for deployment and transit of their troops and cargo to neighbouring Afghanistan.

But the Kremlin later became wary of the growing foreign military presence in a region which was once its imperial backyard.

Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev, elected in 2011, has staked heavily on closer ties with Russia and repeately assured Moscow that the U.S. air base would be shut in 2014.

Visiting Bishkek last September, Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to write off nearly $500 million in debt from Kyrgyzstan in exchange for a package of deals that extended Moscow's economic and military foothold in the volatile nation.

This included a 15-year extension to Russia's lease of the Kant military air base outside Bishkek.

Kyrgyzstan, a mountainous nation of 5.5 million which lies on a drug trafficking route out of Afghanistan, has been hit by periodic bouts of violence and has seen two presidents deposed by revolts since 2005.

The economy, which contracted last year, relies heavily on a gold venture with Canada's Centerra Gold and cash remittances sent home by its migrant workers in Russia.

Ending its agreement on Manas with the United States, Kyrgyzstan will lose annually $60 million paid by Washington for the lease, and maybe more significant sums in indirect revenues from the base, parliamentarian Akmatbek Keldibekov told Reuters.

Kyrgyzstan is part of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (ODKB) of several post-Soviet states, which is led by Moscow. It is also a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation dominated by Russia and China.

"Politically, we won't renege on our commitments - we will stay with Russia both in the SCO and ODKB," Keldibekov said.



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