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Panetta aims to head off closing of Manas transit center

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — On his first official trip to this Central Asian nation, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta met with Kyrgyz leaders Tuesday to stress how much the United States values the Transit Center at Manas.

The busy U.S. airbase near the capital city, Bishkek, is in danger of shuttering while a substantial number of U.S. troops are still in Afghanistan. Kyrgyz president Almazbek Atambaev, who took office in December, has promised to close the Manas facility when the current agreement between the United States and Kyrgyzstan — including yearly U.S. payments of $60 million — expires in July 2014, several months ahead of the final U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan.

That could could complicate the process of getting the last U.S. troops out of Afghanistan and could also impede any ongoing advisory mission that may take place there. Currently, all troops entering and leaving the country travel though Manas.

In total, some 580,000 U.S. and allied personnel traveled through Manas in 2011, and about 3,500 aeromedical evacuation flights transited the base. Manas is a key aerial refueling center, and launched nearly 5,000 refueling missions last year.

With more than two years before the base is scheduled to close, a senior military official accompanying Panetta to Kyrgyzstan said, “We’re not going to negotiate anything.” For now the defense secretary is only seeking a general discussion about how to make a continuing U.S. military presence in Kyrgyzstan beneficial to both countries.

carrollc@stripes.osd.mil

Twitter: @ChrisCarroll_

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