(AFP) – Feb 3, 2009
MOSCOW (AFP) — Kyrgyzstan vowed Tuesday it would order the closure of a US airbase on its soil whose presence has irritated Moscow, on the same day it received a generous Russian financial aid package.
The Manas air base serves as a vital supply route for NATO forces in Afghanistan but its location deep in former Soviet territory has annoyed an increasingly assertive Russia keen on restoring its influence in Central Asia.
"The government of Kyrgyzstan has taken a decision over the ending of the time period for the American base to remain on the territory of Kyrgyzstan," President Kurmanbek Bakiyev said after talks with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev.
"The decision will be announced very soon," he added, in comments broadcast on state television. No timeframe was announced, although some reports have suggested the base will be given six months to close.
The United States immediately underlined the importance of the base, hoping that it would remain open and calling it "hugely important" for the resupply of US forces in Afghanistan.
Coinciding with the announcement by Bakiyev, Russia agreed to a financial aid package settling an estimated 180-million-dollar debt owed by cash-strapped Kyrgyzstan to Moscow.
Russia also agreed to extend an interest free grant worth 150 million dollars to Kyrgyzstan as well as a loan worth two billion dollars, Russian news agencies reported.
There was no official mention of a link between the base's closure and the aid, but there has been intense speculation that Moscow has been using its financial muscle to get its way in its former Soviet territory.
The Kommersant newspaper said Russia "has laid down a strict condition: the provision of Russian financial help should lead to an official announcement by Kyrgyzstan on renouncing its obligations on the presence of the US airbase."
Bakiyev also grumbled that by contrast the United States had been less than forthcoming in giving aid in compensation for Bishkek's hosting of the base.
He said that when the base had been set up to assist coalition forces fighting to oust the Taliban from Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks it had only been supposed to exist for one or two years.
"Now eight years have passed. We discussed the question about economic compensation more than once with the United States but we did not find understanding," he said.
Medvedev said the base's future was a Kyrgyz issue but that "without this we would be able to join forces to enable a stabilisation of the situation in the region."
The base at Manas airport near Bishkek is a supply point for Western operations in Afghanistan and had grown in importance as Washington steps up Afghan operations and faced difficulties with another route through Pakistan.
The importance of the northern route into Afghanistan was underlined as suspected militants blew up a key bridge in northwest Pakistan on Tuesday, suspending a NATO supply line.
"We are hopeful that we can continue our good relationship with the Kyrgyz government, and can continue to use Manas in support of our operations in Afghanistan," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said in Washington.
"It is a hugely important air base for us."
On a visit to Kyrgyzstan on Monday a NATO envoy, Robert Simmons, stressed the base's importance, saying it would be a matter for "regret" if it closed.
Paul Quinn-Judge, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, said that Bakiyev was desperate for aid amid mounting problems, including an energy crisis and declining remittances from migrant workers in Russia.
There is also the prospect of elections due next year but possibly to be held sooner.
"The government is in serious financial straits. It's facing economic crisis.
"Bakiyev is haggling very hard. Quite clearly he needs the money. The unanswered question is how far he's going to be willing to go to get the money," Quinn-Judge said by phone from Bishkek.
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