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4 Feb, 2009 17:34

Kyrgyzstan to shut key NATO base

The President of Kyrgyzstan has announced that the US military will have to leave the Manas Air Base near Bishkek. The facility is central to NATO operations in Afghanistan.

Kyrgyzstan says US personnel will be leaving the air base within 180 days, after the deal is ratified by both sides. The country's parliament will vote on the president's decision on Friday.

The Kyrgyz government said the US wasn't prepared to pay an appropriate fee to use the base.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation had been insisting on its closure since 2005.

President Kurmanbek Bakiyev made the announcement in Moscow after he was promised a 2 billion dollar loan by the Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev.

“Initially, it was a question of one or two years,” Bakiyev said. “Eight years have passed. We have repeatedly raised the issue of economic compensation for the existence of the base in Kyrgyzstan with our American partners, but we have not been understood”.

The once-warm welcome has chilled after reports of fights between American soldiers and locals. In one incident, two women were run over in Bishkek by a vehicle driven by a US soldier. In another, a Kyrgyz citizen was shot dead by an American soldier who escaped prosecution due to immunity enjoyed by US military at the base.

But Washington says it still hopes to continue using the Manas base as it is a major supply depot for NATO troops in Afghanistan.

For US President Barack Obama, who has vowed to boost the war effort in Afghanistan, word of the closure is bad news.

According to Walid Phares from the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, the base is very significant.

“We all know that it ensures from the North air cover operations which are not just US and not just NATO, it’s an international operation against terrorist organisations inside Afghanistan, specifically the Taliban and Al Qaeda,” he said.

Russia, along with China and Kyrgyzstan’s neighbours – Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan – has long campaigned for the closure.

Kyrgyzstan also hosts a Russian military base on its territory.

After the talks in Moscow, President Medvedev announced a two billion dollar package of loans to Bishkek. He also promised to write off part of Kyrgyzstan’s debt to Russia.

“We have a special relationship with Kyrgyzstan. It’s unprecedented support in times of financial crisis, but it’s a strategic decision that is in the interests of both Russia and Kyrgyzstan,” Medvedev said.

US march towards Asia

The September 11 attacks made Central Asia the region of high importance for the US Department of Defense.

U.S. bases in Asia

Shahbaz (Jacobabad) Air Base (AB), Pakistan

Khanabad (K2) Air Base, Uzbekistan

Kandahar Air Base, Afghanistan

Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar

Masirah Air Base, Oman

Al Dhafra Air Base, UAE

The United States found the Manas base to be useful for Afghan operations. It was named after Chief Peter Ganci Jr. of the New York City Fire Department, who died in the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center carried out by al-Qaida.

The annual rent paid to the Kyrgyz government was $150 million.

In September 2003 three Kyrgyz citizens were convicted for an attempt to organise an attack on the base. On July 8, 2004 the attempt was repeated by militants believed to belong to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

2005's Tulip Revolution followed, and President Askar Akayev's exile from the country made US Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld visit Bishkek to support the continued US presence at Manas. But the new Bakiyev administration demanded an increase in the rent for the Pentagon's use of Manas. Due to the December 4, 2001 agreement the price was a little over $2 million a year, and the new amount was increased to $100-200 million annually. The sum was clearly drawn out of a hat and after prolonged 12-month negotiations the price was agreed at $17.5 million per year.

Back to 2005

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev signed a joint statement October 11 in Bishkek expressing support for the presence of coalition forces in the Kyrgyz Republic “until the mission of fighting terrorism in Afghanistan is completed.”

The Krygyz Republic "recognises the important contribution of the international anti-terrorist Coalition, located at the Ganci Airbase, in strengthening regional stability.

One Ganci accident

On December 6, 2006 a Kyrgyz citizen was shot at Ganci airbase. Alexander Ivanov, a 43-year-old truck driver, appeared to be on a routine mission at Ganci when he was killed. Ivanov was reportedly shot twice in the chest while seeking permission to enter the US facility. As Kyrgyz police officers arrived at the scene, events rapidly escalated into a diplomatic incident. President Kurmanbek Bakiyev ordered the Foreign Ministry to begin reconsidering a provision on the status of US soldiers. The incident led to President Kurmanbek Bakiyev calling for U.S. military personnel to be stripped of their diplomatic immunity.

Kyrgyzstan – U.S.relations chilled after incidents between locals and military personnel. In one, a Kyrgyz citizen was shot dead by a US soldier – who escaped prosecution due to immunity enjoyed by US military at the base. Some think that if more soldiers arrive, there'll be more trouble.

“I think President Bakiev is concerned that if a conflict starts in Iran, then this base will be used for transporting military personnel, and this may cause social disturbances,” says Leonid Gusev, political expert.

Around half the Kyrgyz population lives below the poverty line. Political protests flare up sometimes, making the country one of the most politically volatile in Central Asia.

Water is the major domestic source of energy for Kyrgyzstan. But the nation doesn't have enough hydro-electric facilities, and the country has to pay market prices for oil and gas from neighbouring Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan, along with China and other members of the Shanghai Co-operation Organization was urging Bishkek to kick the Americans out. Analysts say Russia's view, however, was driven by differing considerations.

“On the one hand Russia is interested in continuing the operation in Afghanistan, which threatens security in the south. But on the other hand, having the US in Central Asia irritates Moscow, which encourages its Central Asian colleagues to curb this presence,” Arkady Dubnov, an international correspondent, says.

For the withdrawal of the US forces from the base Kyrgyzstan expects to have its debts (about $180 million) written off by Russia in return. Manas turned out to be a burden for Askar Akayev, the toppled Kyrgyz President.Current President Kurmanbek Bakiyev promised Shanghai
Cooperation Organisation members to close the air base; and has now fulfilled his promise.

In 2006 Kyrgyzstan pretended to play hardball with its American guests, demanding they pay $50 million more or quit. The Americans did neither.

With the U.S. vowing to increase the war effort in Afghanistan, this step of Kyrgyzstan makes the task harder for the coalition forces.