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Kyrgyzstan bill likely to end US use of air base at Manas

A U.S. KC-135 Stratotanker maintenance crew performs pre-flight procedures before an air refueling over Afghanistan at Transit Center at Manas, Kyrgyzstan in this August 2012 photo.

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — Kyrgyzstan’s parliament passed legislation Thursday to end the U.S. lease on the Transit Center at Manas, a key base used in supporting American military operations in Afghanistan.

Approved by a vote of 91-5 in Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Council, the bill would prevent the U.S. from extending its lease on the base beyond July 11, 2014, when it’s set to run out.

President Almazbek Atambayev, who took office in 2011 vowing not to extend the lease agreement, is expected to sign the bill into law.

Just north of the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, the airfield at Manas has been a key asset in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan since late 2001. Roughly 1,500 American military personnel and contractors work at the base alongside some 700 locals.

Referred to as Transit Center at Manas since 2009, the base is a major hub for U.S. forces moving in and out of the war, and serves as a launching platform for air tankers used to refuel warplanes operating over Afghanistan.

While personnel at the base are aware of the legislation that would end their use of the facility, operations were carrying on as usual Thursday, a spokeswoman said.

Personnel have seen stories about the bill in the local media, Air Force Master Sgt. Donna Jeffries said, but “until we get further direction from our superiors, right now we’re just continuing our mission.”

It was unclear Thursday how the legislation would affect the war in Afghanistan, which is already winding down toward a 2014 end date. Manas is not the only base used to stage troops moving in and out of the war zone, and earlier this year Russia agreed to NATO’s use of an air base at Ulyanovsk to facilitate the allied withdrawal.

A spokesman for the Defense Department would not discuss the effects of the base closure in the midst of the 2014 pullout or any other contingency plans, and deferred further questions to the State Department. A State Department spokeswoman, meanwhile, referred all questions to the Defense Department.

Attempts to reach representatives of the Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry were unsuccessful.

Kyrgyz First Vice Prime Minister Dzhoomart Otorbayev last week told the country’s English news service 24 that U.S. operations at the base had declined 30 percent in the first quarter of 2013, and would drop even more precipitously as the end of the war in Afghanistan draws nearer, “so operations at the center will decrease anyway.”

This is not the first time the Kyrgyz government has voted to kick the U.S. military out of the air base. After a similar vote in 2009, the government gave the U.S. six months to move out.

Russia is believed to have played a part in that episode, offering the Kyrgyz government a large aid and loan package after it passed the bill. At the time, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morell accused Russia of “attempting to undermine” the U.S. military’s use of Manas.

The U.S. then offered to more than triple what it had been paying for the facility and struck a deal allowing it to continue operations through the middle of 2014 at a cost of about $60 million per year, up from $17.4 million, according to the Pentagon.

The base was in the news last month when a KC-135 refueling jet crashed west of the capital, killing all three on board.

millham.matthew@stripes.com
Twitter: @mattmillham

 

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