Sat, Feb 21, 2009 - Page 5 News List

Kyrgyz President Bakiyev signs bill to shut US air base

AP , BISHKEK

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev signed a bill yesterday to close a key US air base used as a staging post for military operations in Afghanistan, a step that could impede US plans to send more troops to the Afghan war.

Bakiyev’s signing of the legislation was the final step before authorities issue an eviction notice, which will give the US 180 days to vacate the Manas air base, a transit point for 15,000 troops and 500 tonnes of cargo each month to and from Afghanistan.

US officials have said they consider talks on the future of Manas still open, indicating there could be negotiations about the amount paid for maintaining the base.

“This was not an unexpected move, however we have not received formal notification of the decision from the Kyrgyz foreign ministry,” said Michelle Yerkin, spokeswoman for the US embassy in Bishkek. “The 180-day clock begins upon formal diplomatic notification.”

Lawmakers voted overwhelmingly on Thursday in favor of the government-backed bill to cancel the lease on Manas.

Bakiyev announced the closure earlier this month, complaining the US was not paying enough rent for the base. His announcement came shortly after he secured US$2.15 billion in aid and loans from Russia for his impoverished Central Asian nation. US officials suspect that Russia, long wary of US presence in ex-Soviet Central Asia, is behind the decision to shut the Americans out of Kyrgyzstan.

US President Barack Obama’s calls for an increased military focus on Afghanistan could be hampered by the closure of the base.

The US began using the Manas base shortly after it launched operations against Afghanistan for sheltering al-Qaeda following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Manas has been the only remaining US base in Central Asia since Uzbekistan expelled the US from the Karshi-Khanabad base near Afghanistan in 2005. The expulsion followed Western criticism of the Uzbek government’s violent crackdown of a demonstration in the eastern city of Andijan.

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