U.S. says could still avert Kyrgyz airbase closure

MOSCOW Fri Mar 27, 2009 10:21am EDT

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The United States thinks it could avert the closure of its last remaining air base in Central Asia, a senior U.S. official said on Friday, but Kyrgyzstan said its decision to shut the base had not changed.

The Manas base plays an important role in supplying U.S.-led troops fighting in Afghanistan and its closure poses a challenge to plans by President Barack Obama to send additional troops there to fight the growing Taliban insurgency.

The U.S. official, speaking on condition he was not identified, told reporters in Moscow that Washington was still talking to the Kyrgyz government about the future of the base.

"We are still engaged with the Kyrgyz in terms of the base at Manas," the official said. "They have given us notification and they want to end the presence of the U.S. basing abilities in Kyrgyzstan but the story is not over there yet.

Asked whether a new agreement on the future of the Manas base was possible, the official said, "It's possible."

"The U.S. has other options too. The Manas base is one which we find useful but it's not going to seriously affect our abilities to supply our forces in Afghanistan if the base is closed. there are other basing options," the official said.

Kyrgyzstan, which decided last month to close the base after securing a $2 billion aid package from Russia, said its position had not changed and that it was not looking at the possibility of the United States returning to the Manas base.

"We have made our final decision on this matter. There will be no Manas air base in Bishkek," said a spokesman for Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev.

Foreign Minister Kadyrbek Sarbayev said separately in Moscow there were no talks taking place with the United States.

The Kremlin denied it had pressured Kyrgyzstan to make the move but diplomats disagreed, saying Moscow wanted to bolster its political and diplomatic power over former Soviet territory in Central Asia.

Moscow has since agreed to allow trains carrying some non-lethal supplies to U.S. troops in Afghanistan to cross Russian territory.

(Reporting by Conor Sweeney in Moscow and Olga Dzyubenko in Bishkek; Writing by Michael Stott and Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Louise Ireland)

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