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U.S. gains indefinite use of Kyrgyz air base

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld won assurances from top government officials Tuesday that U.S. forces face no near-term deadline for withdrawing from an air base near the Kyrgyz capital.
Donald Rumsfeld Travels To Central Asia
U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, center, gestures as he speaks with Kyrgyzstan Minister of Defense General Major Ismail Isakov, back to camera, during a meeting in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Joe Raedle / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld won assurances from top government officials Tuesday that U.S. forces face no near-term deadline for withdrawing from an air base near the Kyrgyz capital that they use to support combat and humanitarian aid in Afghanistan.

“The base at Manas will stay as long as the situation in Afghanistan requires,” Maj. Gen. Ismail Isakov, the Kyrgyz defense minister, said during a news conference with Rumsfeld at the presidential palace.

After his election on July 10, President Kurmanbek Bakiyev had said that in light of progress toward stabilizing Afghanistan it was time to consider a U.S. exit from Manas International Airport, where about 1,000 U.S. troops have been stationed since the war in Afghanistan began in 2001.

In his remarks Tuesday, Isakov suggested that U.S. forces would not be welcome here permanently.

“The deployment of American forces in the Kyrgyz republic totally depends on the situation in Afghanistan,” he said. “Once there is stabilization, there will be no need. But now I agree with Mr. Secretary, who mentioned that the situation in Afghanistan is far from stable.”

Isakov spoke in Russian and his comments were translated into English by a Kyrgyz aide.

Tajik visit
Later Rumsfeld flew to Tajikistan, which has a long border with northern Afghanistan, for talks in Dushanbe, the Tajik capital, with President Emomali Rahmonov and Col. Gen. Sherali Khayrulloyev, the defense minister.

The U.S. military has no troops based in Tajikistan, but it has an arrangement that permits U.S. military aircraft to “gas-and-go” from Tajik airfields and to overfly Tajik territory on missions related to the Afghanistan war.

At the news conference in Bishkek, Rumsfeld declined to comment on the future of U.S. access to Manas, saying it was a matter for the Kyrgyz government to decide.

But as he was approaching his plane to depart, Rumsfeld told a small group of U.S. troops that they should not wonder about the future U.S. presence in Kyrgyzstan, saying they should not be thinking about packing their bags any time soon.

In remarks at the start of his meeting with Bakiyev, Rumsfeld congratulated his government on the conduct of the election.

He said the voting was free and fair, as assessed by international monitors, and that this would bolster relations with the United States and other countries.

The U.S. use of Manas for air support operations in Afghanistan contributes about $50 million a year to the Kyrgyz economy, according to U.S. officials.

Rumsfeld aides said he emphasized in meetings with Bakiyev and Isakov that military operations in Afghanistan are not winding down and still require logistics and other support from bases in the region.

Uzbekistan raises doubts over U.S. access
At the start of a three-day tour of the region on Monday, Rumsfeld said the U.S. military could sustain its operations in Afghanistan even if the United States lost access to a key air base in neighboring Uzbekistan.

“We’re always thinking ahead. We’ll be fine,” Rumsfeld told reporters traveling with him from Washington.

The Uzbek government has raised doubt about continued U.S. access to Karshi-Khanabad air base, which has been used as a staging point for operations in Afghanistan since the start of the war in October 2001.

It was Rumsfeld’s second visit in four months to Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic of 5 million people that also hosts a Russian base.

A regional organization led by Russia and China issued a statement calling for the United States to set a timetable for withdrawing its forces from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Tensions in Washington’s relations with Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian nations stem partly from an eruption of violence in mid-May in the Uzbek city of Andijan.

The Uzbek government blamed armed, organized terrorists and said about 175 people were killed, some by government forces. Others claimed that up to 1,500 had died at the hands of government troops, including a large number of innocent bystanders.

When the United States urged the Uzbek government to allow an international fact-finding mission, President Islam Karimov refused and imposed new limits on U.S. use of Karshi-Khanabad air base.