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Russia steps in amid Kyrgyz base closure threat

/ Source: news services

Russia said Friday that it will start allowing U.S. military supplies for Afghanistan to cross its territory, while Kyrgyzstan said it will not reverse its decision to close a key U.S. air base.

Kyrgyzstan's National Security Council chief appeared to dash any U.S. hopes of securing a last-minute reprieve for the Manas air base. Russia's move is unlikely to make up for the loss of the base, home to air operations like refueling and medical evacuation.

But Russia's opening of routes for non-lethal supplies could provide an important alternative to roads through Pakistan that are increasingly threatened by militant attacks.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov did not specify if Russia would provide land or air corridors but the U.S. and other NATO have mostly been interested in land routes that would let them to more cheaply move bulky cargo.

By welcoming the transit of U.S. supplies, Lavrov appeared to send a signal to Washington that Russia is ready to help on Afghanistan if the U.S. deals with Moscow when it comes to Central Asia.

Russia last year signed a framework deal with NATO for transit of non-lethal cargo for coalition forces in Afghanistan and has allowed some alliance members, including Germany and Spain to move supplies across its territory.

Lavrov said in remarks broadcast by Vesti 24 television that Moscow had now agreed with a U.S. request that Russia allow transit of non-lethal supplies to Afghanistan. Ground routes through Russia would likely cross into Kazakhstan and then Uzbekistan before entering northern Afghanistan.

"We are now waiting for the American partners to provide a specific request with a quantity and description of cargo, and as soon as they do do that we will issue relevant permissions," he said.

U.S. blames Russian pressure for closure
Kyrgyzstan 's president announced the closure of Manas on a visit to Moscow Tuesday, just hours after securing more than $2 billion in loans and aid from Russia. U.S. officials said the move came as a result of pressure from Moscow, but Russia and Kyrgyzstan denied that.

Russia has been increasingly impatient with the U.S. military presence in energy-rich Central Asia, which Moscow considers its strategic backyard.

In addition, Kyrgyzstan has repeatedly complained the United States is paying too little to lease the base. The facility, located with the Manas civilian airport near Kyrgyzstan's capital, which is home to tanker planes that refuel warplanes flying over Afghanistan. It also supports airlifts and medical evacuation operations and houses troops heading into and out of Afghanistan. Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan do not share a border.

The closure of the Manas base would pose a serious challenge to President Barack Obama's plan to send up to 30,000 more U.S. forces to fight surging Taliban and al-Qaida violence in Afghanistan. It comes as increasing attacks on transportation depots and truck convoys in Pakistan have raised doubts about its ability to protect vital supply routes. About 75 percent of U.S. supplies to Afghanistan currently travel through Pakistan.

The Kyrgyz parliament delayed a vote on the government's decision to close the Manas base until next week, and some Kyrgyz officials indicated they may discuss the issue with the United States in what could signal their desire to start a bidding war between Washington and Moscow.

But Kyrgyzstan's National Security Council chief Adakhan Madumarov said Friday the decision to close the base was final, adding he was sure of winning parliamentary support for the move.

Uzbek route?

Meantime, a Western diplomatic source told The Associated Press on Thursday the United States was close to a deal with Kyrgyzstan's neighbor Uzbekistan that would allow Washington to open a new supply route for its troops in Afghanistan.

Kyrgyz officials have not specified when the closure might take place, but the agreement under which the base was established in 2001 specifies that the United States must be given 180 days' notice.

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