Bishkek Discussing Base With U.S.

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan -- Kyrgyzstan is still in talks with the United States over a key U.S. air base that the Kyrgyz president wants closed, the country's prime minister said Thursday.

Lawmakers earlier decided to delay until next week a vote on a plan to close the Manas air base, which is an important element in the U.S. and NATO military campaign in Afghanistan.

The delay appeared to give the United States additional time to persuade Kyrgyzstan to back off from the closure decision announced Tuesday by Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Kyrgyz officials previously had said the closure decision was irreversible.

Kyrgyz Prime Minister Igor Chudinov did not give details but said, "We are in the process of negotiations with the Americans."

Bakiyev announced this week that his country had decided to close the base, shortly after securing billions of dollars in loans and aid from Russia. Moscow resents the U.S. presence in a country that it regards as part of its traditional sphere of influence.

Kyrgyzstan has repeatedly complained that the United States is paying too little to lease the base. But Chudinov ruled out suggestions that the closure decision was connected to Russia's $2 billion assistance package.

"Talks on Russian aid have been going on for two years, and they were in no way related to the issue of the removal of the air base from Kyrgyzstan," Chudinov said.

Chudinov also said his government has repeatedly raised the issue of the amount of rent paid for the air base. The sums being offered for the base were not economically realistic, he said.

In a visit to the base last month, General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, said the U.S. currently pumps $150 million annually into Kyrgyzstan's economy, including $63 million in rent for Manas.

The government submitted a draft bill to parliament on Wednesday to shut down the base, which is located within the Manas civilian airport near Kyrgyzstan's capital.

Earlier on Thursday, deputies decided to defer a vote on the bill until late next week in line with a request by the government.

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.

Increasing attacks on transportation depots and truck convoys in Pakistan have raised doubts about the United States' ability to protect vital supply routes and have increased the need for alternative routes through Central Asia. Some 75 percent of U.S. supplies to Afghanistan currently travel through Pakistan.

China said Thursday that it respected Kyrgyzstan's decision to close the base. Its foreign ministry statement marked a rare official comment on the domestic issues of other nations, underlining Beijing's intense concern over the presence of U.S. troops in the region.

China shares a 700-kilometer land border with Kyrgyzstan. Both countries are members of a regional grouping, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, that aims to curb U.S. influence in the area. China has said repeatedly that it expected the U.S. military presence in Central Asia to be temporary, indicating its concern over looming encirclement by U.S. bases across Asia.