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Kyrgyzstan: U.S. Defense Secretary Seeking Support For Air Base

Kyrgyz President Bakiev (left) and Robert Gates in Bishkek today (AFP) June 5, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates flew to Kyrgyzstan -- the only country in the world to host both U.S. and Russian military bases -- to discuss the continued U.S. use of the Manas Air Base to support operations in Afghanistan.

Gates' visit comes at a sensitive time in U.S.-Kyrgyz relations. U.S. troops have been using part of Bishkek's Manas International Airport to supply troops in Afghanistan since 2001.

But since late 2005 some government officials have been questioning whether the U.S. government is paying a fair rent for the base, which was some $2 million per year but was increased last year to several times that amount after prolonged negotiations.

Gates' presence in Kyrgyzstan has symbolic value as U.S. influence in Kyrgyzstan -- and Central Asia in general -- is waning while Russia, with its hefty oil revenues, reasserts its interest in the region.

Looking To Stay

Gates met today with Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev, Defense Minister Ismail Isakov, and other officials to discuss the continued use of the air base.

Opposition to the U.S. presence at the Kyrgyz base increased last year when a U.S. serviceman shot and killed an airport employee who the soldier believed was a threat to the base's security.

Last month several parliamentary committees drafted a letter calling on parliament to demand that the U.S. set a time frame for its departure from Manas.

And last week there were small protests outside the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek demanding the United States withdraw its troops from Manas.

Gates and Bakiev said after their meeting that the level of cooperation between the two countries is good but said that the situation in Afghanistan continues to be a concern. There was no immediate comment on talks about the air base.

Aiding Afghanistan

Before meeting with Bakiev, Gates portrayed the stationing of U.S. troops at Manas as part of Kyrgyzstan's contribution to an international struggle.

"What is important for the people of Kyrgyzstan to understand is that our use of Manas is in support of a larger war on terror, in which Kyrgyzstan is an ally of virtually every other nation on earth," he said. "We are all working to try and prevent a resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and our use of Manas is one way in which Kyrgyzstan can play a very important and constructive role."

Gates' visit and comments come at an important time for the U.S. presence in Kyrgyzstan. A small crowd demonstrated outside the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek on June 1 holding signs that read "Yankee Go Home" and "No to the Air Base."

Their protest was fueled by recent reports about Marina Ivanova, the widow of the airport employee who was shot dead by a U.S. soldier in December.

The serviceman, Zachary Hatfield, claimed that the employee was wielding a knife. U.S. troops at Manas enjoy immunity from Kyrgyz investigation or prosecution, part of a deal reached when U.S. troops first deployed at Manas.

A subsequent offer of U.S. compensation to the widow kept the issue in the public spotlight. Ivanova has been cited in articles as complaining that the approximately $50,000 offered by the U.S. was too small. Ivanova wants to take the matter to an international court. Many in Kyrgyzstan also want the U.S. serviceman's immunity lifted to he can go on trial in Kyrgyzstan.

Differing Views

The issue elicited these comments from Kyrgyz parliament speaker Marat Sultanov on June 4.
"However, I suppose we need to assess the agreement [with the United States on the use of Bishkek's Manas airport] from all sides and investigate it scrupulously," he said. "I think we need to hold negotiations on the air base. I think we need to strengthen civic control [over the base] and remove the so-called diplomatic status [for U.S. personnel stationed at the base]."

But public opinion about the U.S. military presence in Kyrgyzstan remains divided, as deputy parliament speaker Erkin Alymbekov showed in comments to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service today when he was asked whether U.S. troops should leave Kyrgyzstan.

"No, if we would close the American air base [at the Manas airport] and let them go, it would be a political mistake, because the United States has been supporting us with humanitarian and other kinds of massive aid," he said. "The existing political situation [in our country] is also against closure in the way Uzbekistan did with the Khanabad [air base]."

Gates' presence in Kyrgyzstan has symbolic value as U.S. influence in Kyrgyzstan -- and Central Asia in general -- is waning while Russia, with its hefty oil revenues, reasserts its interest in the region.

Gates (left) with Kyrgyz Defense Minister Isakov today in Bishkek

The Manas base is a mere 40 kilometers from Kant, where Russia maintains a base as part of the CIS Collective Security Treaty. The Kant base is being enlarged with more troops and military aircraft gradually being added. Russian media, as much and maybe more than the Kyrgyz media, has chronicled U.S. problems at Manas.

When the five Kyrgyz parliamentary committees recommended demanding a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Manas they referred to a 2005 call from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) for the U.S. to make clear when it intended to leave the bases it is using in Central Asia.

The Uzbek government, facing fierce international criticism over its handling of protests in Andijon that ended in great bloodshed, used the SCO call as a pretext for asking the United States to vacate the base it was using in Uzbekistan.

Gates described his meeting with his Kyrgyz counterpart Isakov as "positive."

Gates visit gives the United States more time to work out its problems with the Kyrgyz government. Kyrgyzstan is hosting the SCO summit in August and, as that date approaches, the voices of those saying "Yankee Go Home" may become louder.

(RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)

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