Wednesday, February 4, 2009

MOSCOW (AP) — Kyrgyzstan‘s president said Tuesday his country is ending U.S. use of an air base key to military operations in Afghanistan a decision with potentially grave consequences for U.S. efforts to put down surging Taliban and al-Qaida violence.

A U.S. military official in Afghanistan called President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s statement “political positioning” and denied the U.S. presence at the Manas air base would end anytime soon.

The United States is preparing to deploy an additional 15,000 troops in Afghanistan and Manas is an important stopover for U.S. materiel and personnel.

Ending U.S. access would be 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.

Bakiyev said when the U.S. forces began using Manas after the September 2001 terrorist attacks, the expectation was that they would stay for two years at most.

“It should be said that during this time… we discussed not just once with our American partners the subject of economic compensation for the stationing (of US forces at the base),” he said on Russian state-run TV. “But unfortunately we have not found any understanding on the part of the United States.

“So literally just days ago, the Kyrgyz government made the decision on ending the term for the American base on the territory of Kyrgyzstan,” he said.

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.

As recently as Jan. 19, Petraeus said he had received Kyrgyz assurances that Russia was not pushing for the base to close.

In Washington, 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 United States set up Manas and a base in neighboring Uzbekistan after the September 2001 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 immediate region.

Moscow, which fought a 10-year war in Afghanistan during the Soviet era, was initially supportive of U.S. efforts to keep Afghanistan from collapsing into new anarchy and stem the spread of militancy northward through ex-Soviet Central Asia.

But as Kremlin suspicions about U.S. foreign policy have grown, so has Russian wariness about the U.S. presence in Central Asia. Russia also uses a military air base 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.

About 1,200 U.S. troops are based at Manas.

Russia, however, agreed Tuesday to provide Kyrgyzstan with $2 billion in loans plus another $150 million in financial aid.

Kyrgyzstan is one of Central Asia’s poorest countries and has been buffeted by political turmoil for years. Its economy has been strained to the limit this winter after neighboring Uzbekistan significantly raised prices for natural gas.

Most Kyrgyz have been supportive, or at least accepting, of the U.S. presence, though in 2007, widespread anger erupted after a U.S. serviceman at Manas shot and killed a Kyrgyz man during a security check. Kyrgyz investigators had asked the serviceman face criminal prosecution in their country.

Petraeus said during a trip to the region last month that the investigation will be reopened.

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 his visit, which included a stop in Kyrgyzstan, Petraeus said Washington had struck deals with Russia and several Central Asian states to allow the transhipment of supplies heading to 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, Leila Saralayeva in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and Peter Leonard in Almaty, Kazakhstan, contributed to this report.

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