Thu, Jun 25, 2009 - Page 6 News List

Kyrgyzstan allows US to keep airbase

SEEING RED A Russian foreign ministry source called Kyrgyzstan’s decision a ‘dirty trick.’ Russia offered the country billions of dollars when it said the base would close

AFP , MOSCOW

Kyrgyzstan played a “dirty trick” in deciding to let the US keep using an airbase that Moscow wanted closed, a source in the Russian foreign ministry was quoted as saying yesterday.

The unnamed source, speaking to the Kommersant daily newspaper, vowed that Russia would make a “corresponding response” to the Central Asian country’s decision on the Manas airbase.

On Tuesday, Kyrgyzstan announced it had signed an agreement with the US allowing US personnel to keep using the airbase as a “transit center” for the transport of non-lethal military goods to Afghanistan.

The agreement effectively reversed an earlier decision in which Kyrgyzstan had ordered the Manas airbase to close — a decision that was widely believed to have been made under Russian pressure.

“The news about the preservation of the base was an extremely unpleasant surprise for us. We did not anticipate such a dirty trick,” the foreign ministry source told Kommersant.

The source said that Russia would give a “corresponding response” and dismissed the base’s new description as a “transit center,” saying that Manas would essentially remain a US military base.

“Renaming the base a center is a cosmetic alteration. The real nature of the US military presence in Central Asia has not changed, which goes against the interests of Russia and our agreements with the Kyrgyz government,” the source said.

The comments were much harsher than Russia’s official reaction, which said Kyrgyzstan had the “sovereign right” to make such a decision.

Manas airbase is used to ferry tens of thousands of troops in and out of Afghanistan each year and also hosts planes used for the mid-air refueling of combat aircraft.

Its loss would have been a blow to coalition military efforts in Afghanistan at a time when US President Barack Obama is seeking to step up the campaign against the Taliban.

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced the decision to close the base in February during a visit to Moscow — on the same day that Russia unveiled a generous aid package to his impoverished country.

In the package, Russia agreed to settle an estimated US$180 million debt owed by Bishkek to Moscow, extend Kyrgyzstan a grant worth US$150 million, and loan it US$2 billion more, news agencies reported at the time. Russia has consistently denied playing any role in Kyrgyzstan’s decision to close the base. But the base’s presence had long irritated Moscow, which sees it as an intrusion into its former Soviet domains in Central Asia.

START TALKS

Meanwhile, the US said on Tuesday it has made progress in its negotiations with Russia toward forging a successor to a Cold War-era treaty to cut nuclear weapons arsenals.

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly recalled that both Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev want “significant reductions” in such arsenals under a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).

“That’s what each ... country is working towards. I think that we’ve made progress in the talks that we’ve ... had so far,” Kelly told reporters without elaborating.

US and Russian negotiators met in Geneva on Tuesday as part of the preliminary START negotiations — their third and last scheduled round of talks before a summit between their presidents next month.

Kelly also played down differences with Russia over its demands that a new START treaty address Moscow’s opposition to US plans for a missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, countries that were once under Soviet influence.

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