- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 13, 2010

The strategic U.S. air base at Manas, Kyrgyzstan, is once again facing closure as Russia works behind the scenes to influence Kyrgyzstan’s interim government, which faced new violence in ethnic clashes over the weekend.

In Osh, Kyrgyzstan, on Sunday, Kyrgyz mobs burned ethnic-Uzbeks’ homes and cafes and slaughtered Uzbek villagers in the worst ethnic rioting in the Central Asian nation in 20 years. More than 75,000 Uzbeks were forced to flee into neighboring Uzbekistan as they dodged bullets in the violence, the Associated Press reported from Osh.

Regarding Manas, a Pentagon official said that the Kyrgyz interim government requested in late May that subcontractors who supply fuel to the Manas Transit Center pay a 12 percent value added tax (VAT) on fuel shipments.

“Under the U.S.-Kyrgyzstan cooperation agreement, all Defense Department supplies are exempt from any form of taxation in Kyrgyzstan, to include a VAT tax,” the official said.

The tax dispute led to a disruption of fuel supplies, including in shipments to Afghanistan.

Then on June 6, the Kyrgyz government suspended its requests for VAT tax payments, and fuel shipments resumed “in a manner consistent with the terms agreed to by the U.S. and Kyrgyz governments in our cooperation agreement,” the official said.

The resumption of fuel supplies averted a showdown, but the Obama administration has no plan for how to continue Manas operations after June 20, when the tax will again be sought on shipments.

However, a former U.S. official familiar with events in Kyrgyzstan told The Washington Times that the Russian government, which views Kyrgyzstan as part of its sphere of influence, is pressuring Kyrgyz officials to eventually close the U.S. base.

According to the official, Vladimir Rushailo, a special envoy to Kyrgyzstan for Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, has been in the country to lobby the government in Bishkek.

“The interim Kyrgyz government showed it can disrupt U.S. government military operations in an effort to obtain more money, in flagrant violation of existing bilateral agreements,” the former official said.

Last year, Kyrgyzstan threatened to close Manas after Moscow offered more than $2 billion in aid and loans. However, Kyrgyzstan agreed to keep open the base after the U.S. government tripled its rent on the base.

The former official said the Kyrgyz government wants money and is being manipulated by Moscow into supporting Russia’s geopolitical interests.

“The balance of power in Central Asia is about to shift further against U.S. interests,” the former official said.

Yevgeni Khorishko, a spokesman with the Russian Embassy in Washington, could not be reached for comment.

Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister and de-facto leader, said in Istanbul on June 8 that it was up to the Bishkek government to decide whether the base should stay open or not.

The Manas base, the only U.S. military base in the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union, has been in operation since 2002 and is a major fuel-supply station, handling as much as 12 million gallons of fuel per month. The base is a hub for KC-135 refueling tankers and also a major stopover for thousands of U.S. troops heading to Afghanistan. In addition to refueling operations and troop transport, the base is used for medical evacuations.

In April, the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on national security and foreign affairs held a hearing on the Manas base and the refueling operations in what critics say could ultimately undermining Pentagon efforts to use the base for refueling and troop-transfer operations.

Rioting in Kyrgyzstan began Thursday and appeared focused on destabilizing the interim government, which came to power after former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted in a bloody uprising in April and fled the country. Uzbeks have backed the interim government, while many Kyrgyz in the south support the toppled president.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• Bill Gertz can be reached at bgertz@washingtontimes.com.

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