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U.S. General's Kyrgyz Visit Rivals Russian Influence

U.S. General David Petraeus

U.S. General David Petraeus

BISHKEK (Reuters) -- U.S. General David Petraeus has arrived in Kyrgyzstan, a day after the United States said it would build an antiterrorism training center for the former Soviet republic in Central Asia.

Both the United States and Russia have military air bases in Kyrgyzstan, and the visit by Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, is likely to irritate Moscow, which sees the poor but strategically placed country as part of its sphere of influence.

The U.S. Embassy said Petraeus had arrived and would hold two days of talks with Kyrgyz officials but gave no details.

Kyrgyzstan alarmed the United States last year when it said it would close the U.S. Manas air force base after receiving a promise of $2 billion in aid from Russia.

It later reversed its decision after Washington paid $180 million to keep the base, vital for supplying U.S. forces in nearby Afghanistan.

Russia, while saying it does not see Washington as a strategic competitor in Central Asia, has made clear that the U.S. military presence is not welcome. The presence of the two bases has come to symbolise Russia-U.S. rivalry in the region.

On March 9, the U.S. Embassy said the $5.5 million antiterrorist center would be built in Batken in southern Kyrgyzstan -- where Russian and Kyrgyz officials had earlier said Moscow might consider building a similar military facility.

The embassy rejected speculation that Washington wanted to open another military base in Kyrgyzstan, stressing that the new centre would belong to the Kyrgyz government.

Kyrgyzstan's Defense Ministry said it could not give any details.

Analysts say that Central Asia, a mainly Muslim but secular region, has become increasingly susceptible to militant ideas in the past few years because of deepening gloom about economic stagnation and poverty.