- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The strategic U.S. military base in Kyrgyzstan, a key supply link for forces in Afghanistan, is safe from closure for now, despite last week’s unrest that led to a change of government in the Central Asian state, U.S. officials said on Monday.

The new government, which took power from President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, lacks sufficient legitimacy to change the terms of the U.S. lease for the air base at Manas, located near the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek, the officials said.

The country’s new leader, Roza Otunbayeva, told Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Saturday that she had no plans to expel the U.S. military personnel. However, some supporters have called for amending the current agreement and increasing the $60 million the United States has paid for the Air Force-run base since 2001.

RELATED STORY: Kyrgyz president offers to leave

“We are prepared to discuss the issue with anyone who is interested, but changing the agreement might have to wait until there is an unquestionable government in Kyrgyzstan,” a senior U.S. official said.

The Obama administration plans to wait until a new democratically elected government is formed in the fall, as Ms. Otunbayeva has promised, and if that Cabinet decides to seek changes in the deal, the administration is prepared to hold negotiations, the official said.

Until then, Washington expects operations at Manas to continue as planned, diplomats and military officials said.

“It is very good news that Ms. Otunbayeva said that they will continue to abide by those agreements, and of course the United States is prepared to talk at any time with her and members of the provisional government about these arrangements,” Robert Blake, assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, told reporters.

Mr. Blake is scheduled to arrive in Bishkek early Wednesday to meet with Ms. Otunbayeva and other members of her “provisional government.”

“My main goal will be to hear from the Kyrgyz administration about their assessment of the law-and-order situation, the steps that they plan to take during their six-month interim administration to organize democratic elections and a return to democracy, and how we might be able to help them to restore democracy and economic growth in Kyrgyzstan,” he said.

Ms. Otunbayeva, a former foreign minister and ambassador to Washington, took power after opposition protests drove Mr. Bakiyev from office, amid accusations he was a corrupt dictator. She said last week she still had “some questions on” the Manas deal. More than 80 people died and hundreds were injured in the Wednesday violence that included government forces opening firing on protesters.

Capt. John F. Kirby, spokesman for Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, said the “Manas Transit Center remains an important logistics hub” for U.S. and other forces in Afghanistan. The current lease, which was negotiated last summer “is good for one year terms, renewable annually up to five years, and either side may terminate the agreement with 180 days notice,” he said.

That means that if the Kyrgyz government wanted to end the lease in July, they would have notified Washington in January. Because they did not, the earliest the deal could be scrapped is July 2011, State Department officials said.

The administration’s willingness to pay three times the amount it was charged for Manas until last year shows the base’s vital importance for the mission in Afghanistan, officials and analysts said.

“The around-the-clock missions include aerial refueling, airlift and airdrop, aero medical evacuation and support for coalition personnel and cargo transiting in and out Afghanistan,” Capt. Kirby said.

“In just the month of March — a record-breaking month — the passenger terminal pushed through approximately 50,000 multinational, U.S. and coalition troops,” he said. “And the petroleum, oil and lubricants flight issued more than 12 million gallons of jet fuel.”

Ariel Cohen, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said Ms. Otunbayeva is likely to be pressured to expel the Americans from Manas by Russia, which supported Mr. Bakiyev’s ouster.

Mr. Blake and State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley declined to comment on any Russian role in last week’s events, but Mr. Cohen said that role was evident days before Mr. Bakiyev’s overthrow.

“The writing was on the wall, because Russian television started broadcasting programs depicting Bakiyev as a nasty dictator,” he said. “Russia also jacked up energy tariffs to Kyrgyzstan, causing prices to skyrocket.”

Moscow tried to prevent extending the U.S.-Kyrgyz base deal last year, but Mr. Bakiyev agreed to it after Washington offered more money, Mr. Cohen said.

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