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Kyrgyzstan Starts Moves to Close U.S. Airbase

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — Kyrgyzstan began moves on Wednesday to close a U.S. military air base in the former Soviet republic that is vital for supplying U.S.-led troops fighting in Afghanistan.

The decision by a traditional Russian ally in Central Asia sends a tough signal and challenge to new U.S. President Barack Obama as he plans to send additional troops to Afghanistan.

The base is an important staging post for the U.S.-led military campaign against the Taliban and its role has been heightened as Washington seeks to reinforce supply routes that bypass Pakistan, where supply convoys face security risks.

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced that the base would be shut after securing Russian financial aid at talks on Tuesday in Moscow, which wants to reduce U.S. influence in regions it considers part of its traditional sphere of interest.

The Kyrgyz government sent parliament a decree on closing the base on Wednesday, government spokesman Aibek Sultangaziyev said in the capital Bishkek.

"It is up to parliament now to decide when to hold discussions on this," he said.

U.S. officials said talks on the future of the airbase near Bishkek were still underway with Kyrgyzstan, a mountainous country of about 6 million people.

"We have been discussing the base with Kyrgyz authorities for some time now. We hope those discussions will continue to the point where we reach some mutually beneficial outcome," said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell.

Moscow, which operates its own airbase in Kyrgyzstan a few dozen kilometers away from Manas, has long been irritated by the presence of U.S. troops.

During his visit to Moscow, Bakiyev received a promise of more than $2 billion in credit and aid from Russia — the equivalent of about half of impoverished Kyrgyzstan's gross domestic product — to combat an economic crisis.

Business appeared to go on as usual at the airbase outside Bishkek, with no unexpected activity visible from behind a ring of barbed wire encircling the facility, now home to more than 1,000 U.S. military personnel.

At its main gate, three servicemen declined to talk to reporters as they verified registration plates and conducted security checks on vehicles entering the base.

The United States has 32,000 troops in Afghanistan and U.S. officials have said the planned build-up could grow to include as many as 30,000 troops over the next 12 to 18 months.

Many Kyrgyz people have had mixed feelings about the presence of U.S. troops in their homeland since 2006, when a U.S. airman shot dead a Kyrgyz man in an incident at the base.

Iskhak Masaliyev, a Kyrgyz member of parliament, said the United States would be given 180 days to remove its forces once it had received official notification of the termination of its contract for the air base.

"Basically Kyrgyzstan had to make its choice. And it has now made its strategic choice," said Masaliyev, who represents Kyrgyzstan's communists in parliament.

U.S. officials said while the Manas base was important, any decision to close it would not halt military operations in Afghanistan.

"The United States and coalition forces will be able to continue operations in Afghanistan without the Manas base," U.S. State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said in Washington.

In Moscow, Russian President Medvedev said despite Kyrgyzstan's decision, both countries would carry on cooperating with the United States on Afghanistan.


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