U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan says starts to close

MANAS, Kyrgyzstan Mon Jun 15, 2009 4:51am EDT

MANAS, Kyrgyzstan (Reuters) - A U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan, used as a hub for operations in Afghanistan, has started to shut down and will close by mid-August as ordered by the Central Asian state, its outgoing commander said on Monday.

The ex-Soviet republic gave the United States six months from February to shut the Manas air base, but U.S. officials have expressed hope Kyrgyzstan could still change its mind.

Speaking to reporters after a change-of-command ceremony, Colonel Christopher Bence said the facility had started to wind down operations.

"We have started shipping equipment and supplies to other locations," he told reporters at the base outside the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek.

Asked when U.S. forced would leave, he added: "On August 18 as the Kyrgyz government has asked us."

Kyrgyzstan announced its decision to close Manas after securing pledges of $2 billion in aid and credit from Russia, which operates its own air base in the mainly Muslim nation.

While repeating that its decision was final, Kyrgyzstan has shown more flexibility on the issue in past weeks, stressing the need to increase cooperation over Afghanistan at a time when regional instability is on the rise.

In the strongest sign yet that there might be room for change, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev said last week he would consider new ways of expanding ties with the United States after receiving a personal letter from President Barack Obama.

(Reporting by Olga Dzyubenko; Writing by Maria Golovnina, editing by Matthew Jones)