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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bishkek To Close Key U.S. Air Base

APA U.S. serviceman standing near a S-135 jet at the Manas base in 2007.
Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced Tuesday that his country would close a U.S. air base supporting NATO's military operations in Afghanistan.

But a U.S. military official denied that the base would close and called the announcement "political positioning."

Bakiyev spoke shortly after President Dmitry Medvedev said Russia would provide Bishkek with a $2 billion loan and $150 million in nonrepayable aid.

"Kyrgyzstan will close the U.S. military base in Manas after Washington refused to negotiate better compensation," Bakiyev told reporters late Tuesday after holding talks with Medvedev in the Kremlin.

The United States pays annual rent of $63 million for the base.

Medvedev said that despite Kyrgyzstan's decision, both countries would continue to cooperate with the United States on Afghanistan.

Colonel Greg Julian, the U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan, rejected the announcement that the base would close. "I think it's political positioning. ... We have a standing contract, and they're making millions off our presence there," he told The Associated Press. "There are no plans to shut down access to it anytime soon."

The U.S. Embassy in Bishkek scheduled a news conference for Wednesday morning.

Moscow gave its blessing to the U.S. base when it opened in December 2001 to provide assistance in the United States' post-Sept. 11 war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. The base hosts about 1,000 military personnel as well as fighters and bombers. The United States also opened a base in Uzbekistan.

But as ties with the United States and NATO chilled, Moscow began to view with suspicion the bases in its Central Asian backyard. Uzbekistan ordered U.S. forces off its base after Washington criticized its bloody crackdown on a 2005 uprising, and speculation has been rife in recent weeks that Moscow was pressing Bishkek to follow suit.

Bakiyev said Tuesday that the Kyrgyz government initially had agreed to host the U.S. military for only one or two years.

Vladimir Pirogov / Reuters
NATO official Simmons wearing a traditional Kyrgyz hat during the opening of a NATO library in Bishkek on Monday.
"Eight years passed. We repeatedly discussed with the United States the issue of economic compensation for staying at the base in Kyrgyzstan, but we didn't find understanding," Bakiyev said.

In April 2006, Bakiyev threatened to expel the troops if the United States would not agree to pay more to rent the base. Later he withdrew his threats.

Bakiyev mentioned on Tuesday the 2006 killing of a Kyrgyz citizen by a U.S. serviceman who was sent home despite an initial promise by U.S. officials to keep him in Kyrgyzstan until the incident was resolved. The lack of a trial sparked public outrage in Kyrgyzstan at the time.

"How can we talk about [our] independence and sovereignty if we cannot act according to the law on the territory of our country?" Bakiyev said.

General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, said last month that the Manas base would be key to plans to increase the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan by up to 30,000 soldiers in the coming months.

Petraeus said the United States pumps $150 million into Kyrgyzstan's economy annually, including the $63 million in rent for the base.

On Monday, a senior NATO official said during a visit to Kyrgyzstan that any decision to close the base would be "regrettable." The official, Robert Simmons, described the base as a "vital link in our fight against international terrorism."

Moscow has become increasingly suspicious about Western countries' presence in former Soviet republics after Western-backed revolutions led to regime changes in Georgia in 2003 and in Ukraine in 2004. In March 2005, a coup initiated by the pro-Western Kyrgyz opposition toppled President Askar Akayev, but Moscow loyalist Bakiyev won the subsequent presidential election there.

After a five-day war with aspiring NATO member Georgia last August, NATO cut ties with Russia, which in turn suspended NATO airlifts to Afghanistan over its territory. NATO decided to restore cooperation with Moscow late last month.