U.S. News

U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan starts shutting down

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.

U.S. servicemen march during a change of command ceremony at Manas Air Base near Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek June 15, 2009. REUTERS/Vladimir Pirogov

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 may still change its mind.

Its planned closure could pose a challenge to Washington’s plans to send more troops to Afghanistan to boost efforts to defeat Taliban insurgents.

Speaking to reporters after a change-of-command ceremony, Colonel Christopher Bence dismissed suggestions there was still room for change.

“We have started shipping equipment and supplies to other locations,” he told reporters at the base.

Asked when U.S. forces 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 country.

The poverty-stricken country has reiterated that the decision is final but has shown more flexibility on the issue in recent weeks, stressing the need to increase cooperation on Afghanistan at a time when regional instability is growing.

In the strongest sign yet that he may still change his mind, 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.

Bakiyev was in Russia on Monday for a regional security summit and has not commented on the Manas closure.

Nestling in the steppes outside the capital, Bishkek, the base is home to about 1,000 personnel and serves as a key refueling point for aircraft used in operations in nearby Afghanistan.

Colonel Blaine Holt, who took over Manas operations on Monday, said work was under way to close the base but suggested details were still being discussed.

“I’m aware of the situation and over the past several weeks several shipments of materials have left the country,” he said.

“And we are all working toward those goals. ... I know that the top leadership of both countries continue to discuss this.”

Its planned closure has upset local communities because it employs hundreds of Kyrgyz subcontractors.

Writing by Maria Golovnina; editing by Andrew Dobbie