July 26, 2005

U.S. wins Kyrgyzstan’s assurance on military base

By Will Dunham

BISHKEK (Reuters) - Kyrgyzstan assured the United States on
Tuesday that it could keep its base in the former Soviet
Central Asian state to support American military operations in

But remarks by the Kyrgyz leadership, under pressure on the
issue from old ally Russia, fell short of providing the United
States with an open-ended right to stay for as long as it

"I wouldn't pack your bags," visiting Defense Secretary
Donald Rumsfeld told U.S. troops at the base at Manas
international airport, 30 km (17 miles) east of the capital
Bishkek, in an upbeat comment after talks with Kyrgyz leaders.

"I have every reason to believe the relationship will
continue in an orderly way," added Rumsfeld, who later flew to
Tajikistan for talks with its leadership.

But acting Kyrgyz Defense Minister Ismail Isakov told a
joint news conference with Rumsfeld: "The presence of the
(U.S.) base fully depends on the situation in Afghanistan." He
added that once Afghanistan became stable, there would be no
further need for American use of the base.

"Today the minister (Rumsfeld) rightly noted that the
situation in Afghanistan has not finally got back to normal,"
Isakov added.

With Russia's tacit acceptance, the United States
established a military presence in former Soviet Central Asia
in 2001 allowing it to use the region as a springboard for
operations in Afghanistan. U.S.-led forces invaded Afghanistan
to topple the Taliban rulers who had harboured al Qaeda,
responsible for the September 11, 2001 attacks on U.S. cities.

Moscow is now becoming concerned that the U.S. military
presence there could undermine its influence and foment
revolutions like those that installed pro-Western governments
in former Soviet Ukraine and Georgia.


Under pressure from Moscow, a group bringing together
Russia, China and four Central Asian countries demanded a U.S.
deadline for closing the bases in Kyrgyzstan and neighboring
Uzbekistan, until recently another vital regional U.S. ally.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov, who came in for U.S.
criticism after a bloody crackdown on demonstrators in the
eastern town of Andizhan, has now restricted flights from the
American base in his country.

Rumsfeld said recent developments were not a threat to the
presence of the U.S. bases.

"We have good arrangements with a number of countries in
this part of the world that have been fashioned over time, and
they have proved to be mutually beneficial," Rumsfeld said.

In a sign of the growing rivalry in Central Asia, Russia
has established its own military base in Kyrgyzstan, which it
sees as a strategic equalizer to the U.S. Ganci air base at
Manas, where 1,000 U.S. troops are stationed along with nine
refueling and cargo planes supplying Afghanistan operations.

Impoverished Kyrgyzstan, whose new government came to power
after a popular revolt in March and is trying to establish
itself as an "island of democracy" in a mainly authoritarian
region, has to tread a fine line between Moscow and Washington.

Acting President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who this month won a
landslide victory in a presidential election, has vowed his
loyalty to Russia.

But strong U.S. support is equally crucial for his poor,
mountainous nation of 5 million people.

The United States has contributed about $750 million in all
types of assistance since Kyrgyzstan gained independence after
the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The U.S. military base, which spends $50 million annually
in landing fees, fuel and other expenses, has generated jobs
and become a strong contributor to the Kyrgyz economy.

"We look forward to continuing to work with the
international community to support Kyrgyzstan's emergence as a
democratic state and a free-market economy," Rumsfeld told the
briefing. "The United States will also continue to work with
the government here to confront violent extremism."
(Additional reporting by Olga Dzyubenko)