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Kyrgyz Parliament Approves U.S. Air Base Closure


A U.S. cargo plane lands on the runway of the Manas air base.
BISHKEK (Reuters) -- Kyrgyzstan's parliament has voted overwhelmingly to approve a government proposal to close a U.S. air base in the Central Asian nation.

The Manas air base is a vital transit point for U.S.-led troops fighting in nearby Afghanistan.

The decision was passed by 78 votes to 1 against by the legislature dominated by the ruling Ak Zhol party.

The closing of Manas, the last remaining U.S. air base in Central Asia, would pose a challenge to new U.S. President Barack Obama's plans to send additional troops to Afghanistan to boost NATO and U.S. military efforts to defeat Taliban insurgents.

It also comes at a time of heightened rivalry between Moscow and Washington for control of Central Asia, a vast former Soviet region still seen by Russia as part of its traditional sphere of interest.

"Once all the procedures are over, an official eviction vote will be sent and after that the United States will be given 180 days to wrap up operations at the air base," Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Kadyrbek Sarbayev told journalists after the vote.

He could not say when President Kurmanbek Bakiev was expected to sign the approved decision into law, but under Kyrgyz that should happen within a month.

Bakiev announced the closure plans this month after accepting more than $2 billion in aid and credit from traditional ally Russia. He has accused Washington of refusing to pay more rent for use of the base.

"We are definitely voting to close the base. We do not need other countries' military bases here. We have always called for strategic cooperation with Russia," Communist Party deputy Iskhak Masaliev said, addressing the chamber.

Russia has an air base of its own in Kyrgyzstan, located in Kant just a few dozens kilometers away from Manas.

Alternative Supply Routes

The United States is now looking for alternative supply lines to landlocked Afghanistan as existing routes via Pakistan have become increasingly vulnerable to militant attacks.

U.S. regional military chief General David Petraeus visited Uzbekistan this week as part of these efforts.

One of the alternative routes, through Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan, will soon be tested when a first shipment of nonmilitary goods leaves NATO member Latvia for Afghanistan via their territories.

Washington sent troops to Afghanistan after the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001.

Kyrgyzstan's opposition has criticized Bakiev for his decision and accused him of selling out to Russia. Moscow and Kyrgyzstan have denied any connection between the Russian financial package and Bakiev's decision.

"This $2 billion has been paid in order to convince Kyrgyzstan to close the base," said Bakyt Beshimov, an opposition politician.

"I am saddened by the fact that Kyrgyzstan's image has now been so seriously tarnished."