- The Washington Times - Friday, July 14, 2006

The United States and Kyrgyzstan yesterday struck a deal to keep open the Manas air base near the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek, removing a cloud that threatened the future of the last major U.S. air base in Central Asia.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack confirmed yesterday that Kyrgyz and U.S. negotiators had reached a “protocol of intentions” in the payment dispute over how much rent the Pentagon should pay for Manas, which provides critical logistical support for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.

The strategic importance of the Kyrgyz base, which has housed U.S. forces since 2001, soared after neighboring Uzbekistan last year ordered U.S. forces to leave the Khanabad air base — also heavily used for Afghanistan — as relations soured over a political crackdown by Uzbek President Islam Karimov.

“The United States and the Kyrgyz Republic are firmly committed to the war on terrorism and improving the security of Afghanistan, Central Asia and the broader region,” Mr. McCormack said, quoting from the joint statement issued by the two governments.

The accord was signed in Bishkek yesterday by Kyrgyz Security Council Secretary Miroslav Niyazov and U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense James MacDougall, Mr. McCormack said.

“The U.S. base is staying in Kyrgyzstan. We’ve agreed on a long-term, strategic cooperation with the United States,” Mr. Niyazov told the Associated Press.

Kyrgyzstan, a poor, landlocked nation of 5 million, also has been the focus of intense competition for influence between the United States and Russia, which has pressed for a deadline to close U.S. bases in an area it considers its strategic back yard. Russia operates its own base just 30 miles from the American facility.

Kyrgyzstan President Kurmanbek Bakiyev sparked alarm about the future of U.S. access to Manas in September when he said the estimated $2 million annual rent paid by the Pentagon was too low. He told a Russian newspaper in February that Bishkek was seeking $207 million a year and suggested in May that U.S. forces might not be allowed to stay at all.

Kyrgyzstan also signed a statement backed by China and Russia at a regional security summit last summer that called for Washington to set a deadline to close all its bases in the region set up to support the Afghanistan campaign.

But U.S. officials made clear they were determined to hold on to Manas, calling it critical to anti-terrorism efforts in the still-unsettled region.

Neither side released the financial details of the base rent deal, but the joint statement said the United States “expects to provide more than $150 million in total assistance and compensation over the next year,” pending congressional approval.

The United States has provided $850 million in aid to Kyrgyzstan since it achieved independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the statement said.

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