MANAS TRANSIT CENTER (Reuters) - A U.S. Air Force base in Kyrgyzstan is packing up for closure after more than 12 years of flying troops and cargo in and out of Afghanistan, as Moscow boosts its military clout in the strategic region.
The Manas Transit Center in the ex-Soviet nation’s main civilian airport has been in operation since the end of 2001, serving the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan codenamed Operation Enduring Freedom.
As Kyrgyzstan seeks closer political ties and economic aid from its ex-Soviet overlord Russia, the national parliament last June gave Washington until July 2014 to close its base.
The logistics hub, employing some 1,200 servicemen, was engaged in aerial refueling, personnel and cargo airlift, as well in humanitarian programs with Kyrgyzstan.
“As of February 28, those four main missions had been completed, and now our main focus is on orderly and clean transfer of the transit center back to the government of Kyrgyzstan,” said Colonel John Millard, commander of the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing and Manas base head.
“We will have this installation and all U.S. personnel moved no later than July 10,” he told visiting media on Thursday.
During more than 12 years of operations, the Manas base near the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek handled more than 33,000 refueling missions, moved more than 5.3 million servicemen in and out of Afghanistan and served 42,000 cargo missions, Millard said.
Personnel and cargo airlift missions have now been moved to Forward Operating Site Mihail Kogalniceanu near the Black Sea port of Constanta in Romania, known as “Transit Center M.K.”
On Thursday, U.S. soldiers were dismantling a field canteen at Manas. A nearby tent city, which used to accommodate up to 2,000 transit servicemen and was nicknamed “Hotel Alaska”, had already been removed. A U.S. soldier jogged past a lonely C-17 transport airplane.
In the wake of the September 11, 2001 plane attacks on U.S. cities, Moscow said it had no objections to the United States and its allies using Central Asia for deployment and transit of troops and cargo to neighboring Afghanistan.
But the Kremlin has since become wary of the foreign military presence in its former imperial backyard.
Kyrgyzstan, a mainly Muslim nation of 5.5 million, remains poor and volatile after violent revolts that have deposed two presidents since 2005.
It lies on a drug-trafficking route out of Afghanistan and is next door to China, which is boosting its economic ties with resource-rich Central Asia.
After his election in 2011, Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev assured Moscow the U.S. air base would be shut.
In December 2012 he ratified a deal leasing the base to Russia for 15 years from January 2017, after Moscow agreed to write off some $500 million of Kyrgyz debts. The agreement can be automatically extended for five years after its expiry.
Neighboring Tajikistan also receives Russian economic aid and ratified a deal in October to extend by three decades Moscow’s military presence on its land, which may face security threats after NATO troops leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
In Kyrgyzstan, Russia operates four installations, including the Kant airbase near the capital Bishkek and a naval test site at Lake Issyk Kul in the Tien Shan mountains.
Several fighter aircraft and helicopters are deployed at Kant, a Soviet-era airfield east of Bishkek. Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu has said Moscow plans to send a unit of modernized Su-25SM fighter-bombers to Kant this year.
U.S. Manas base chief Millard declined to comment on Russia’s growing military presence. “My main focus is on the base closure at this point,” he said.
Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; editing by Andrew Roche