- The Washington Times - Friday, March 27, 2009

MOSCOW (AP) - A senior U.S. official said Friday that Kyrgyzstan and Washington have agreed to continue talks over a key American air base that American forces had been told to leave within six months.

A Kyrgyz presidential spokesman reiterated that the base decision was final, but said the Central Asian country was still open to a new deal with the United States.

The base provides support for military operations in Afghanistan, and its potential closure poses a challenge to President Barack Obama’s plan to send up to 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan this year to fight surging Taliban and al-Qaida violence.

Kyrgyzstan last month ordered the United States to leave the base within 180 days.

The U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, told reporters in Moscow that, “We have agreed to enter into discussions with the Kyrgyz, at their invitation, on the possibility of the (base) agreement remaining in force.

“They have given us notification that they want the agreement to end, but the story is not over yet,” the official said.

Kyrgyz presidential spokesman Almas Turdumamadov released a statement saying that “Kyrgyzstan is not considering the possibility of the return of the U.S. air base at Manas. This issue has been resolved definitively, a law has been passed by parliament and signed by the president.”

He said the president had made clear that “Kyrgyzstan is prepared to negotiate on cooperating to ensure security in Afghanistan.”

The U.S. official downplayed the effect that a closure of the base would have on Afghanistan operations, saying the United States has options with countries that already offer basing rights. “It’s not going to affect our ability to supply our forces in Afghanistan,” he said.

The base, about 500 air miles from Afghanistan, is a transit point for 15,000 troops and 500 tons of cargo each month to and from Afghanistan.

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and other government officials had complained that the United States ignored repeated demands for an increase on the $17.4 million paid in annual rent for the base. He announced plans to close the base in January, shortly after Russia offered the impoverished country $2.15 billion in loans and aid.

Russia is uneasy about the U.S. military presence in a country that it regards as part of its traditional sphere of influence, but officials in Moscow and Kyrgyzstan initially denied the aid and the base closure were linked.

However, Kyrgyzstan’s ambassador to Washington, Zamira Sydykova, said this month that the decision to order the United States to vacate the base was influenced by Russian economic aid as her government struggled with high debt.

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