Kyrgyzstan Lets French Use Airport

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan -- Kyrgyzstan has agreed to let France deploy warplanes and soldiers at its main civilian airport for a year, bypassing approval by parliament, Kyrgyz officials said Monday.

Jean-Pierre Kelche, chief of staff of the French armed forces, said during a visit Saturday that Paris wanted to deploy aircraft in Kyrgyzstan to help its military operations in Afghanistan and provide assistance to U.S.-led coalition forces there.

"The French side has been allowed to deploy its forces even before the ratification, because our legislative process has been blocked," Alisher Abdymomunov, head of the upper chamber of parliament's foreign relations committee, told reporters. "Because the fight with international terrorism still continues, the Foreign Ministry and government have decided to make an exception."

Normally, parliament has to give the go-ahead to such operations, but the Kyrgyz government can decide when it does not need to refer to the national assembly. Abdymomunov said the agreement with France would cover a one-year period, and France would pay for every take-off and landing of its planes, and for their servicing.

In December, Kyrgyzstan's parliament voted overwhelmingly to allow U.S. warplanes to use Manas airport, near Bishkek. But the legislature had so far put off approval of a similar deal with France. A Kyrgyz Defense Ministry official said he expected six Mirage-2000 fighters to land at Manas by the end of January.

Kelche said the French forces at Manas would include two refueling aircraft and up to 500 men.

Some 200 U.S. servicemen are already stationed at the airport and have set up a large tent city nearby. Some 3,000 coalition troops and up to 50 military, transport and refueling planes may eventually be stationed in Kyrgyzstan.

Tommy Franks, the U.S. general commanding forces in Afghanistan, started a five-day visit to Central Asia on Monday to stress military partnership and assert Washington's interest in the formerly Soviet region.

Franks arrived in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, on Monday and is to leave the region on Friday after meetings with several Central Asian governments, the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent said in a statement. An Uzbek government official said Franks would pay a flying visit to Tajikistan on Wednesday and to Kyrgyzstan on Thursday.

Representatives from seven political parties in Kyrgyzstan announced Monday that they were joining a hunger strike to protest what they called the government's battle against the opposition and its efforts to roll back rights that citizens won after the 1991 Soviet collapse, The Associated Press reported.

More than 250 people have joined the hunger strike that was declared last week to publicize demands for the release of a prominent lawmaker on what the opposition says are trumped-up charges to avenge his criticism of the government.

Azimbek Beknazarov, chairman of the legal committee in Kyrgyzstan's parliament, was arrested on charges of failing to prosecute a 1995 slaying while he was a local prosecutor.