BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — Kyrgyzstan's president signed a bill Friday to close a key U.S. air base used as a staging post for military operations in Afghanistan, a step that could impede American plans to send more troops to the Afghan war.
Kurmanbek Bakiyev's signing of the legislation was the final step before authorities issue an eviction notice, which will give the United States 180 days to vacate the Manas air base, a transit point for 15,000 troops and 500 tons of cargo each month to and from Afghanistan.
U.S. officials have said they consider talks on the future of Manas still open, indicating there could be negotiations about the amount paid for maintaining the base.
"This was not an unexpected move, however we have not received formal notification of the decision from the Kyrgyz foreign ministry," said Michelle Yerkin, spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek. "The 180-day clock begins upon formal diplomatic notification."
Lawmakers voted overwhelmingly Thursday in favor of the government-backed bill to cancel the lease on Manas.
Bakiyev announced the closure earlier this month, complaining the United States was not paying enough rent for the base. His announcement came shortly after he secured $2.15 billion in aid and loans from Russia for his impoverished Central Asian nation. U.S. officials suspect that Russia, long wary of U.S. presence in ex-Soviet Central Asia, is behind the decision to shut the Americans out of Kyrgyzstan.
President Barack Obama's calls for an increased military focus on Afghanistan could be hampered by the closure of the base.
The United States began using the Manas base shortly after it launched operations against Afghanistan for sheltering al-Qaida following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Manas has been the only remaining U.S. base in Central Asia since Uzbekistan expelled the United States from the Karshi-Khanabad base near Afghanistan in 2005. The expulsion followed Western criticism of the Uzbek government's violent crackdown of a demonstration in the eastern city of Andijan.
Widespread public discontent in Kyrgyzstan over the U.S. military presence has been sharpened in recent years by a number of high-profile incidents surrounding the base.
In late 2006, a U.S. serviceman fatally shot truck driver Alexander Ivanov during a routine security check. U.S. officials said Ivanov threatened the serviceman with a knife.
"So far, no American soldier has appeared in court," Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Kadyrbek Sarbayev told deputies Thursday.
Alternative routes eyed
On a recent visit to Kyrgyzstan, U.S. Gen. David Petraeus said an investigation into the killing had been reopened.
The United States is trying to finalize details of an alternative overland supply route to Afghanistan amid concerns over worsening security in Pakistan . Some 75 percent of U.S. supplies currently travel through Pakistan, where militants have stepped up attacks on truck convoys destined for U.S. bases.
Washington has already received permission from Russia and Kazakhstan to transport non-lethal supplies for Afghanistan by rail. It hopes to secure similar guarantees from Uzbekistan, which has a border and transportation links with Afghanistan.
Around 100 containers of non-lethal supplies bound for Afghanistan left by train Wednesday from Latvia for Russia, U.S. diplomats said.
Also Thursday, a delegation of U.S. military transportation officials arrived in another former Soviet state in the region, Tajikistan, which shares an 810-mile border with Afghanistan.
The officials will study Tajikistan's transportation infrastructure and evaluate the potential for shipping nonmilitary cargo through the country to Afghanistan, the Tajik Foreign Ministry said.
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