U.S. vacates base in Central Asia as Russia's clout rises

MANAS TRANSIT CENTER Kyrgyzstan Tue Jun 3, 2014 1:34pm EDT

U.S. servicemen from Bravo Company, 234 Battalion 1st Infantry Division, board a plane bound for Afghanistan at the U.S. transit center at Manas airport near Bishkek April 15, 2011.  REUTERS/Vladimir Pirogov

U.S. servicemen from Bravo Company, 234 Battalion 1st Infantry Division, board a plane bound for Afghanistan at the U.S. transit center at Manas airport near Bishkek April 15, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Vladimir Pirogov

MANAS TRANSIT CENTER Kyrgyzstan (Reuters) - The United States on Tuesday handed back its only Central Asian airbase to the government of Russia's close ally Kyrgyzstan, as President Barack Obama winds down U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Moscow makes a comeback in its old imperial backyard.

In a move aimed at pleasing its former overlord Russia, parliament in Kyrgyzstan voted a year ago to give Washington until July 11 to vacate the Manas Transit Center, which has served U.S. operations in Afghanistan since 2001.

The base, at the main civilian airport in the former Soviet republic, moved more than 5.3 million servicemen in and out of Afghanistan and handled tens of thousands of cargo shipments and refueling missions.

"We were known as the gateway to Afghanistan on freedom's frontier," Colonel John Millard, commander of the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing and Manas base head, told a group of visiting media on Monday.

"We offloaded more than 1 billion liters of fuel to 136,000 coalition aircraft ... We like to say we fueled the fight."

On Tuesday Millard handed over a symbolic golden key to the base to Colonel Mirbek Imayev, deputy head of Kyrgyzstan's elite National Guard.

With Obama now planning to withdraw all but 9,800 American troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year and to pull out the rest by the end of 2016, the importance of Manas to Washington would have been greatly diminished.

But the base closure still has symbolic importance in a week when Obama and Putin, both attending World War Two commemorations in France, will encounter each other for the first time since the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis.

Obama is beset by foreign policy difficulties, from Ukraine to Syria, while Putin is riding high with the Russian public after annexing the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in a move that the West condemned but was powerless to prevent.

BRIDGEHEAD TO AFGHANISTAN

Russia gave its consent to Washington and its NATO allies to use Central Asia as a staging post for the Afghan war after the al Qaeda attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.

But Moscow later became increasingly wary of foreign military presence in the region it considers its sphere of influence. After his election in 2011, Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev promptly assured Russia the Manas base would be shut.

In the past 13 years, it has been the main staging post for troops of 26 countries on their way in and out of Afghanistan, and provided mid-air refueling of combat aircraft.

"We literally moved 98 percent of all ISAF and coalition forces into and out of Afghanistan," Millard said, referring to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.

As its remaining contingent of around 300 soldiers prepares to leave Manas, the U.S. government will hand over accommodation facilities, special airport vehicles, a new fire department and other equipment worth a total of around $30 million to Kyrgyzstan.

"Within one week we expect all U.S. military personnel to depart," U.S. Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan Pamela Spratlen told a news conference at the base on Tuesday.

She deftly avoided a question about Russia's growing influence in resource-rich and strategically located Central Asia as the United States retreats from Manas.

In Kyrgyzstan, a poor state of 5.5 million lying on a drug trafficking route out of Afghanistan, Russia operates four installations, including the Kant air base near the capital Bishkek and a naval test site at Lake Issyk Kul.

In December 2012 Kyrgyzstan ratified a 15-year base lease deal with Russia, after Moscow agreed to write off some $500 million of Kyrgyz debt. The agreement can be automatically extended for five years after its expiry.

Next-door Tajikistan also receives Russian economic aid and ratified a deal in October to extend by three decades Moscow's military presence on its territory, which may face security threats after NATO troops leave Afghanistan.

Last week Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan signed a treaty to create the Eurasian Economic Union, seen by critics as an attempt by Putin to restore as much as possible of the former Soviet Union. Atambayev, present at the ceremony, said he hoped Kyrgyzstan would join in soon.

Meanwhile neighboring China, in need of Central Asia's oil, gas and mineral wealth, is also firming its foothold in the turbulent region, signing contracts worth billions of dollars.

(Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)