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On Visit To Kyrgyzstan, Panetta Presses For Continued Use Of Manas


U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (left) is greeted by a serviceman as he arrives at the Manas Transit Center on March 13.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has met with Kyrgyzstan's leaders to stress that the United States considers the continued use of a military base in the country as crucial to U.S. efforts in Afghanistan.

The Manas Transit Center outside Bishkek serves as a key logistics hub for the NATO-led force in Afghanistan. The current U.S. lease for using the facility expires in 2014.

At the start of a meeting with Panetta, Kyrgyzstan's Defense Council Secretary Busurmankul Tabaldiev said that after 2014 "there should be no military mission" at Manas.

Tabaldiev also said Kyrgyzstan had "shown readiness" to support the nonmilitary use of the transit hub after 2014.

Panetta simply offered his thanks for the continued support of Manas. The meeting then continued behind closed doors. Kyrgyz Defense Minister Taalaybek Omuraliev also took part.

Before arriving in Bishkek, Panetta had said he would speak to Kyrgyz leaders about the "importance" of Manas as a transit center.

A senior U.S. official traveling with Panetta told reporters on condition of anonymity that the United States hopes there will be some opportunities for additional negotiations to secure a longer-term contract for the use of Manas.

The official said the U.S. administration also hopes to make the case that supporting the war effort in Afghanistan serves Kyrgyzstan's interests by boosting regional stability.

President Almazbek Atambaev has said the existence of the base leaves Kyrgyzstan vulnerable to retaliatory strikes over U.S. military action in the region.

U.S. officials say negotiations on extending the lease agreement have not begun.

U.S. combat troops are scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, the same year the Manas lease expires. But the drawdown calendar is still unclear and it is possible that tens of thousands of U.S. forces may be moving out of Afghanistan in the final months of the year, when the lease would have already terminated.

White House officials said U.S. President Barack Obama's administration does not anticipate a decision on troop withdrawals from Afghanistan to be finalized before a summit of NATO leaders in Chicago in May.

Manas has been the subject of contention between the United States and Kyrgyzstan.

After Kyrgyzstan threatened to cancel U.S. access to the base in 2009, Washington secured a new deal by agreeing to triple the rent paid to Bishkek.

U.S. officials say the United States now pays $60 million a year for use of the airfield, up from an earlier annual fee of about $17 million.

The U.S. presence at Manas has irritated Russia, placing Kyrgyzstan at the center of a power rivalry for regional influence.

Manas hosts about 1,500 U.S. troops and private contractors as well as a fleet of refueling tanker aircraft. It operates round-the-clock, with planes transporting thousands of troops and hundreds of tons of cargo every month.

According to Pentagon statistics, there were about 4,800 refueling flights out of Manas for the Afghanistan war in 2011.

With AP and AFP reporting
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