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Kyrgyzstan votes to close key US base

KYRGYZSTAN'S parliament voted yesterday to close a key United States air base in the country - a move that could hamper US President Barack Obama's efforts to increase the number of US forces in Afghanistan.

Deputies voted 78-1 for the government-backed bill to cancel the lease agreement on the Manas air base, a transit point for 15,000 troops and 500 tons of cargo each month to and from Afghanistan. Two deputies abstained.

If Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev signs the bill and the authorities issue an eviction notice, the US will have 180 days to vacate the base.

"The decision to shut the American base reflects the will of the Kyrgyz people," said Nurbyubyu Kerimova, a deputy of the party that overwhelmingly dominates parliament in the former Soviet-bloc nation.

Bakiyev unexpectedly called this month for the closure of Manas, complaining that the US was not paying enough rent for the base.

His announcement of the base closure was made in Moscow, shortly after Russia offered his country US$2.15 billion in aid and loans. Analysts say the closure and the aid appeared to be linked, although officials deny any connection.

However, another parliamentary deputy, Ishak Masaliyev, said the decision on Manas could help improve ties between Kyrgyzstan and Russia.

"We in Kyrgyzstan do not need anybody else's base. We have always advocated a union with Russia," Masaliyev said.

Russia established an air base in Kyrgyzstan in 2003, after the US base opened in late 2001.

Moscow's perceived pressure on Kyrgyzstan to expel US forces has been greeted with frustration in Washington.

"I think that the Russians are trying to have it both ways with respect to Afghanistan in terms of Manas," US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said yesterday. "On one hand you're making positive noises about working with us in Afghanistan and on the other hand you're working against us in terms of that airfield, which is clearly important to us."

The US is trying to finalize the details of an alternative overland supply route to Afghanistan amid concerns over worsening security in Pakistan.

Some 75 percent of US supplies currently travel through Pakistan, where militants have stepped up attacks on truck convoys destined for US bases.

US officials have already received permission from Russia and Kazakhstan to transport non-lethal supplies for Afghanistan through those countries by rail. It hopes to secure similar guarantees from Uzbekistan, which has a border and transportation links with Afghanistan.


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