- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The United States has secured the continued use of its last remaining air base in Central Asia that is key to supplying troops and military hardware for the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan, U.S. officials said Tuesday.

Washington apparently changed the minds of officials in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan after four months of negotiations, during which it agreed to increase drastically the monetary compensation to its hosts for the use of Manas air base.

“We welcome this decision by the Kyrgyz Republic to submit to the Kyrgyz parliament a new agreement for use of Manas International Airport as a transport and logistics hub for our mission in Afghanistan,” State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters.

“These arrangements provide for a transit center operated by the United States at Manas International Airport,” he said. “This transit center will provide logistical support to coalition forces in Afghanistan.”

Mr. Kelly declined to discuss details about the deal but did not dispute reports that the rent the U.S. will be paying in the future will be almost three times the current $17.4 million.

The entire package the Obama administration has agreed to pay totals about $180 million, Reuters news agency reported. That includes $67 million to upgrade the Manas airport, $20 million for a joint economic development fund and $32 million to fight drug trafficking and terrorism, it said, citing a copy of the agreement.

The document was approved by a parliamentary committee Tuesday and the full parliament is expected to vote on it Friday.

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev shocked Washington in February when he announced during a visit to Moscow that the U.S. lease of the base would be terminated. At the time, he insisted the decision had nothing to do with money, but his announcement coincided with Kyrgyzstan securing $2 billion in Russian aid and loans and raised many eyebrows.

On Tuesday, Mr. Bakiyev’s government said it had changed its mind because of the danger that instability in Afghanistan poses to Central Asia.

“The reason for entering these agreements was the general situation in Afghanistan and around it,” Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Kadyrbek Sarbayev told parliament’s defense committee. “Obviously, we cannot ignore potential threats.”

U.S. officials have said since February that, if Kyrgyzstan felt the rent Washington was paying was not enough, they would be more than happy to increase it.

Russia, while saying that the matter should be resolved between the U.S. and Kyrgyzstan, defended the Kyrgyz decision at the time and rejected accusations of trying to bribe its neighbor. Moscow opposes U.S. military presence close to its borders.

The Russian Foreign Ministry acknowledged Tuesday that it is Kyrgyzstan’s “sovereign right” to reach a deal with the Americans, but it also expressed puzzlement by its change of heart, saying it thought the February decision was final.

Mikhail Grishankov, deputy chairman of the State Duma Security Committee, went further, saying that the continued U.S. presence at Manas will affect the situation in the region negatively.

“Russia supports efforts of the anti-terrorist coalition in Afghanistan. However, at the same time the [U.S.] presence on the base in Kyrgyzstan is a problem,” he was quoted as saying by Russia’s ITAR-Tass news agency.

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