Kyrgyzstan: US base closure 'final'

Moscow – The Kyrgyz government's order to close the Pentagon's Manas air base, which is a vital link in the supply chain to NATO forces in nearby Afghanistan, is "final" and there's nothing further to discuss.

So declared several top officials of the mountainous ex-Soviet state Friday, indicating that they expect the 1,000 or so US personnel who've occupied the sprawling facility for the past eight years to be gone, along with all the hardware they've parked there, by this summer.

Though Moscow officially denies any connection, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced his decision to close the base after receiving a generous aid package from the Kremlin, including a $2 billion loan, a $150 million gift, and a full write-off of Kyrgyzstan's $180 million debt to Moscow. That compares with annual US assistance to the impoverished Central Asian nation of around $150 million, including $63 million for rental of Manas.

The closure could strike a serious blow to President Barack Obama's plan to double US force levels in Afghanistan by the end of this year, and it comes just as sabotage threatens to cripple the main supply route used by NATO forces via Pakistan. The Monitor reported Friday on the growing tension resulting from the US presence in the region.

But it is probably no coincidence that a contradictory signal came out of Moscow on the same day.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told journalists that Russia is ready to come to the rescue and provide the needed transport corridor. "We are waiting for our American partners to send us an official request listing the amount and the nature of the supplies," Mr. Lavrov told Russia's Vesti-24 TV station. "We will issue the relevant order as soon as this happens."

Though some in the US say they're perplexed by these differing signals, Russian experts say it's not difficult to decode: Nowadays the Kremlin regards the former USSR as Russia's sphere of influence, and if Mr. Obama wants to plan a supply route to Afghanistan through former Soviet territory, he'd better send his people to Moscow to discuss it first.

"The message is that if Washington doesn't want to hold a constructive dialogue with us, then we can create very big obstacles for anything it wants to do in this region," says Andrei Grozin, a central Asia expert at the official Institute of Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow.

Though the Kremlin assented to planting the first-ever US bases on former Soviet territory during the brief honeymoon that followed the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, experts say it's grown increasingly impatient as the Americans appeared to settle down permanently at Manas.

Closing down Manas is "a tough invitation to come and talk" with the Kremlin, says Mr. Grozin.

Or, put another way, an offer Obama can't refuse.

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