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U.S. Senate Panel OKs Kyrgyzstan Air-Traffic Payment

U.S. soldiers prepare to disembark at Manas in February.
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- A U.S. Senate panel has approved millions of dollars to help Kyrgyzstan improve its air-traffic-control system, as Washington seeks to keep access to airfields in the Central Asian country.

Kyrgyzstan decided in February to shut Manas Air Base, which supports military operations in Afghanistan, later this year, after securing pledges of $2 billion in aid and credit from Russia. About 1,000 U.S. military personnel are based at Manas.

Moscow regards the region as part of its sphere of influence and resents the U.S. military presence there.

Senate Democratic aides said the Obama administration requested $30 million with the understanding that it would be used for air-traffic-control upgrades if and when a deal is reached with Kyrgyzstan to keep U.S. access to airfields there.

The Senate appropriations subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations tucked the amount into the foreign aid portion of a bill to fund the Iraq and Afghan wars for the remainder of this year. The full Senate appropriations committee will take up the legislation later this week.

The $30 million in Kyrgyzstan funds are already in the House version of the war funding bill, which totals $96.7 billion. The House plans to vote on it on May 14 or 15. Congressional leaders in both chambers want to finish the war funding legislation by the last week of this month.

The Manas base is a major hub for moving military personnel and supplies in and out of Afghanistan, where the United States is deploying tens of thousands of extra troops this year in an effort to fight back against a resurgent Taliban.

The Pentagon said recently that the United States had made progress in trying to persuade Kyrgyzstan not to close the base. But Kyrgyzstan denied that talks on the matter were being held.

A U.S. defense official said on May 12 that the money was intended to provide budget flexibility to continue operations in Kyrgyzstan in case a deal is reached. But the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the money would not be available if Manas closes.

"Discussions are continuing and the secretary holds out hope for a favorable outcome," the official said in reference to U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

The United States currently pays $17.4 million a year to use the base and total U.S. assistance to Kyrgyzstan is $150 million a year -- a considerable amount in the impoverished former Soviet state's $4 billion economy.

The Senate appropriations subcommittee refused to approve about $95 million the Obama administration sought for economic aid to North Korea in the form of heavy fuel oil shipments. Those shipments have been halted, but the administration had wanted the money to be approved in the event the North Koreans returned to multilateral talks on dismantling their nuclear program.