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Kyrgyz parliament votes to close US base – “We should only keep company with and believe Russia.”

Posted by Kris Roman on February 19, 2009

kyrgyzstan-president-kurmanbek-bakiyev-bgThe Kyrgyz parliament voted on Thursday to close a key US military supply base for Afghanistan as the United States tried to persuade NATO allies to send more troops to defeat a growing insurgency.

Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of the bill to close the Manas air base outside the Kyrgyz capital, with 78 out of 81 lawmakers present voting in favour. One MP voted against and two abstained.

The setback for coalition forces seeking to defeat the Taliban came as US Defense Secretary Robert Gates met other NATO defence ministers in the Polish city of Krakow to pressure them to match US increases in troop numbers.

The bill must now be signed by President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, whose announcement last month of the base’s closure shocked Washington. The United States will then have 180 days to shut it down.

Bakiyev’s initial announcement of the closure came after Russia offered more than two billion dollars in aid to the struggling Kyrgyz economy. The government has insisted that Moscow did not set the closure as a condition.

Gates said in Poland that the US would not pay beyond a “reasonable” amount to use the Manas base and said the vote would not be “the last word.”

“I think we are prepared to look at the fees and see if there is a justification for a somewhat larger payment but we’re not going to be ridiculous about it,” he said.

“We’re prepared to do something that we think is reasonable.”

The United States pays 17.4 million dollars a year to use the strategic air base, which serves as a vital hub for moving troops and supplies in and out of Afghanistan.

But Paul Quinn-Judge, Central Asia director for influential think-tank International Crisis Group, said the Kyrgyz authorities could yet change their minds with the right financial incentives.

“They would like a really good offer from the Americans and it doesn’t matter how far the legislation has gone. Senior officials have made it very clear there is no ideology here. This is a question of funding,” he said.

The closure of the base would further strain coalition supply lines at a time when US President Barack Obama has just authorised an increase of 17,000 troops to add to the 36,000-strong US force in Afghanistan.

NATO officials have warned that security is likely to be a bigger problem in coming months as Afghan President Hamid Karzai faces increasing problems and elections.

“Even with these additional forces, I have to tell you, 2009 is going to be a tough year,” General David McKiernan, who commands US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, told reporters Wednesday at the Pentagon.

“For the next three to four years, I think we’re going to need to stay heavily committed … in Afghanistan.”

Compounding the bad news for the Western military alliance, the government in Pakistan’s Punjab province cancelled a private deal for a new NATO supply terminal due to security concerns after Taliban attacks in the northwest.

“The deal stands cancelled,” Rana Sanaullah, law minister in the provincial Punjab government told AFP.

The Manas base, operated by about 1,000 troops, including small French and Spanish contingents, was set up to support coalition forces fighting to oust the Taliban in Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Since the announcement by Bishkek, both Russia and Tajikistan have offered to allow the transit of non-lethal supplies to NATO forces in Afghanistan.

The Kyrgyz parliament’s move drew a mixed reaction from Bishkek’s streets.

“Those who wanted the base closed don’t know what they’re talking about. The Kyrgyz can’t live alone,” said Pavel, a former base employee and now a taxi driver, who only gave his first name.

“The economy is not developing. They need a big brother — be it Russia, America or someone else.”

But 54-year-old Vladimir Morozov told AFP: “I’m very happy that in the end our capital will be rid of the Americans. They behaved very badly, like they owned the place.”

“We should only keep company with and believe Russia.”


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