U.S. shipment to Afghanistan to leave Latvia soon

RIGA (Reuters) - A first shipment of goods for U.S. forces in Afghanistan is to leave Latvia soon and cross Russia and central Asia by train, as Washington seeks new supply routes in the face of the closure of its air base in Kyrgyzstan.

Fellow Baltic state Estonia said its ports could also be used for such traffic.

The United States needs alternative routes to supply its forces as Kyrgyzstan’s parliament is to vote on Thursday on closing the Manas air base outside the capital Bishkek. One option to be used is by train from Riga, the Latvian capital.

The pressure to find new supply routes to landlocked Afghanistan has been heightened since militants launched attacks on trucks carrying NATO supplies from Pakistan.

A spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Latvia said the shipment, of 100 containers, would leave “in the near future”. “It is non-lethal commercial goods,” he said.

Newspaper Bizness i Baltiya quoted a container terminal official as saying it would probably leave on Thursday.

Contacted by Reuters, the official declined to be as precise, saying it would leave very soon. He said the route would be via Russia and central Asian countries.

The embassy said 20 to 30 trainloads per week could go from Latvia to Afghanistan if the route proved a success. Latvia has been in NATO since 2004 and is a strong U.S. ally.

“I think this is a very important project, supplying American troops fulfilling their mission in Afghanistan,” Latvian Foreign Minister Maris Riekstins told reporters after talks with his Estonian counterpart Urmas Paet.

He expected the shipment to leave soon and said it would include construction materials, food and water supply products.

Paet said Estonia could send such shipments too.

“I think it’s very important that NATO and Russia have this agreement on this non-military transit via Russia,” he said.

“Also there are talks with our ports and railway ... and I guess that also in the foreseeable future the first trains will go from some Estonian ports through Russia to help with supplies to Afghanistan.”

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who needs parliamentary approval to shut the Manas air base, announced the closure plans after accepting more than $2 billion in Russian aid and credit.