U.S. Military Supplies Allowed Through Russia

ReutersU.S. servicemen guarding the entrance to the Manas air base last week.��
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced Friday that Russia would allow the United States to resume the shipment of nonlethal military supplies for Afghanistan across its territory, a vital link in an alternative route to Pakistani roads threatened by militant attacks.

The top national security official in Kyrgyzstan said, meanwhile, that the country would not reverse the decision to close an important U.S. air base, a move seen as influenced by Russia's irritation with the U.S. military presence in Central Asia.

The overall message appeared to be that Russia is ready to help the United States on Afghanistan but only on its own terms.

Lavrov said in remarks broadcast by Vesti-24 television that Russia had agreed several days earlier with a U.S. request to allow transit of nonlethal supplies to Afghanistan, which first started in April but were suspended by NATO after Russia's brief war with Georgia in August.

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

U.S. Brigadier General James McConville praised the announcement, saying in Kabul on Sunday that the transit rights would make it harder for militants to attack the U.S. supply line.

Lavrov and other officials would not say whether the United States would be offered air or land transit corridors. But the transit routes are unlikely to make up for the loss of the Kyrgyz Manas air base, home to tanker planes that refuel warplanes flying over Afghanistan. Manas also supports airlifts and medical evacuation operations and houses troops heading into and out of Afghanistan.

Kyrgyzstan's security council chief, Adakhan Madumarov, appeared to dash any U.S. hopes of securing a last-minute reprieve for the base, saying he was sure of winning parliamentary support for the move.

"The fate of the air base has been sealed," he said.

Kyrgyzstan's president announced the closure of Manas on a visit to Moscow last 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. Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov repeated Moscow's denial of a link Sunday.

Moscow, however, has sought to increase its influence in Central Asia — and lessen Washington's — in recent years. At the same time, it does not want the chaos in Afghanistan to spread across the region if the United States and NATO fail there.

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

Foreign Ministry spokesman Igor Lyakin-Frolov said Germany has been using air and land routes and France has so far only used air transit.

U.S. ground routes through Russia would likely cross into Kazakhstan and then Uzbekistan before entering northern Afghanistan.

The United States has reached a preliminary deal with Kazakhstan to use its territory, and officials have said they are considering resuming military cooperation with Uzbekistan, which neighbors Afghanistan.

That option is problematic for Washington: Uzbekistan kicked U.S. forces out of a base there after sharp U.S. criticism of the country's human rights record and the government's brutal quashing of a 2005 uprising.

Renewing those ties would also open the United States to new accusations that it is working with an authoritarian government that tortures its citizens. Uzbekistan has also in the past faced a low-level insurgency from Islamic radicals, though a government crackdown has quelled much of it.

U.S. officials have repeatedly said talks with Kyrgyzstan on the Manas base are still ongoing. U.S. State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid suggested Friday that Kyrgyz officials might be divided over whether to close the base. "They've not told us they reached a final decision," Duguid said.

Kyrgyzstan's parliament has delayed a vote on the government's decision until this week, and some Kyrgyz officials have indicated they may be willing to discuss the issue with the United States.

But Security Council chief Adakhan Madumarov said Friday that the decision to close the base was final.

In a separate development, Tajikistan's president pledged Friday that his government would allow the transit of nonmilitary supplies to coalition troops based in Afghanistan.

Exact arrangements have yet to be worked out, but U.S. military officials are due to visit the country later this month for further discussions, the U.S. Embassy in Tajikistan said.

Tajik routes are unlikely to greatly affect U.S. supplies because the mountainous country is hard to traverse by land and it has already allowed U.S. overflights in the past.

(AP, MT)