Kyrgyzstan allows US to keep using base

by Tolkun Namatbayeva

BISHKEK - The United States and Kyrgyzstan signed a deal on the transit of supplies to Afghanistan that will effectively keep open a US airbase that Kyrgyz authorities had ordered shut, officials said Tuesday.

The Central Asian state had thrown a wrench into US President Barack Obama's plan to intensify the campaign against the Taliban when it ordered the closure of the Manas airbase, a key transit point for Afghanistan operations.

Under a new deal worth some 177 million dollars, the rent that Washington pays for the base -- now called a "transit centre" -- will be more than tripled, but it can only be used for non-lethal military supplies.

Bishkek had signed the deal out of concern for "the worrying situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan," Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Kadyrbek Sarbayev told the country's parliament.

"The Kyrgyz government decided... to conclude an intergovernmental agreement with the United States on cooperation and the formation of a transit centre at Manas airport," he said.

A Kyrgyz government official told AFP that under the deal, signed Monday, the airbase would be used for the transport of non-lethal goods.

"Under the new Kyrgyz-US agreement, Manas airport will be used for the transport of non-military goods of a commercial nature, including construction materials, medicine, fuel, water and clothing," he said.

However Kyrgyzstan would not have the right to search US cargos passing through the airbase, Sarbayev told lawmakers.

He also said Washington would pay Bishkek 60 million dollars per year for the rent of the base, a significant increase on the previous annual rent of 17.4 million dollars.

Bishkek had long complained that it was not receiving a fair rent for Manas, which also serves as the ex-Soviet republic's main international airport.

The United States would also pay Kyrgyzstan more than 36 million dollars for improvements in infrastructure at Manas and 30 million dollars for new navigational equipment, Sarbayev said.

On top of that, Washington pledged 20 million dollars for development in Kyrgyzstan; 21 million dollars for fighting drug traffickers; and 10 million for fighting terrorism, he said.

Sarbayev described the deal as "temporary" and said it would be in effect for a period of one year.

The Kyrgyz parliament was expected to vote Thursday on ratifying the deal.

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 refuelling of combat aircraft.

Its loss would have dealt a major blow to coalition military efforts in Afghanistan at a time when Obama has sent tens of thousands of more troops there to fight the Taliban.

With its change of status to a so-called "transit centre" for non-military goods, it is unclear whether the base will operate as before, or with a scaled-down function.

"I don't think we've seen anything near the final form of this agreement," said Paul Quinn-Judge, a Bishkek-based analyst with the International Crisis Group.

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced the decision to close the base in Moscow in February -- the same day that Russia unveiled a huge aid package to the impoverished Central Asian country.

The base's presence had long irritated Moscow, which sees it as an intrusion into a region it considers its backyard.

However Russia consistently denied playing any role in Kyrgyzstan's decision to close the base.

A retired Russian general seen as a hardliner said the new US-Kyrgyz deal amounted to a return to the previous status quo.

"Everything will return to the earlier arrangement, where there was a US airbase at Manas," Leonid Ivashov said in an interview with Interfax news agency.

"The only difference is there will be a new verbal description and a higher rent for the military presence."

Many Kyrgyzstan watchers have long speculated that the government had never intended to evict the base and was simply angling for more money.

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