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Kyrgyzstan Says Decision Is Final On Closing U.S. Base

A view from outside the Manas air base
BISHKEK (Reuters) -- Kyrgyz officials say the country's decision to shut a U.S. air base is final, dealing a blow to Washington's efforts to retain what has been a major staging post for U.S. forces fighting in Afghanistan.

The United States said it was still in talks with Kyrgyzstan about keeping the Manas base in the impoverished former Soviet republic and traditional Russian ally.

"The decision has been made," said Kyrgyz government spokesman Aibek Sultangaziyev. "The U.S. Embassy and the [Kyrgyz] Foreign Ministry are exchanging opinions on this, but there are no discussions on keeping the base."

That stance is more definitive than the one taken by Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev on February 3, when he said that the issue came down to the price the United States is willing to pay for continuing to use Manas as part of an "air bridge" of cargo planes flying quickly in and out of Afghanistan to supply U.S. and international forces there.

Bakiev announced the closure of the base this week after securing more than $2 billion in financial aid and credit from Russia at talks in Moscow.

The announcement has set a tough challenge for new U.S. President Barack Obama, who plans to send additional troops to Afghanistan to try to boost NATO efforts to defeat Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgents.

Other Offers

Speaking in Tajikistan, the U.S. envoy to Dushanbe said Tajikistan had agreed to offer its airspace for transport of non-military NATO supplies to Afghanistan.

"The [Tajik] president confirmed his readiness to offer the country's airspace for non-military NATO supplies bound for Afghanistan," Ambassador Tracey Ann Jacobson, speaking in Russian, told reporters.

"This necessity emerged after a decision was made to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan," she said.

A Western diplomatic source told Reuters separately on February 5 that the United States was close to a deal with Uzbekistan that would also allow Washington to open a new railway supply route for its troops in Afghanistan.

The United States says it is still hopeful the base can be retained. "We're still very much engaged," said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman.

Russia, irked by the U.S. military presence in Kyrgyzstan which it regards as part of its strategic sphere of interest, has long exerted pressure on Bishkek to evict the U.S. forces.

NATO says it is concerned about Russia's possible involvement in the Kyrgyz decision. Moscow, which operates its own military base in Kyrgyzstan, has strongly denied any link between its aid package and the move to shut Manas.

Asked if Washington had made any additional offers over the base, Kyrgyz Prime Minister Igor Chudinov said: "We have not received any proposals." He says Kyrgyzstan wants to shut the base because it disagrees with U.S. methods in Afghanistan.

The Kyrgyz government needs parliamentary approval to proceed with the closure, but this is seen as a formality as the chamber is controlled by a pro-presidential party. A simple majority of votes is needed.

Officials have said parliament will vote next week.

The Russian aid package, due to be approved by parliament on February 6, includes a $1.7 billion discounted loan to help Kyrgyzstan build a hydroelectric power plant.

Russia, while blowing cold on the U.S. military presence in Central Asia, has politically backed the NATO effort in Afghanistan. Moscow says it will be flexible to U.S. requests for supplies to be allowed to cross its territory.