November 1, 2011 / 10:10 AM / 8 years ago

Kyrgyz president-elect wants U.S. air base closed

BISHKEK (Reuters) - Kyrgyzstan’s president-elect said on Tuesday the United States should leave its military air base in the Central Asian republic when its lease expires in 2014, the same year NATO-led combat troops are due back from Afghanistan.

Prime Minister and presidential candidate Almazbek Atambayev talks to journalists in the capital Bishkek October 31, 2011. REUTERS/Vladimir Pirogov

Almazbek Atambayev, the pro-Russian prime minister who claimed victory in a presidential election on Sunday, said Kyrgyzstan would honor its current agreement but he had no intention of renewing the lease on the base.

“When I was appointed prime minister last year, and again this year, I warned employees and leaders of the U.S. embassy and visiting representatives that, in 2014 and in line with our obligations, the United States should leave the base,” he said.

The U.S. military uses the Manas transit center as a supply route for the war in Afghanistan. The base is adjacent to Kyrgyzstan’s main international airport, also called Manas, just outside the capital Bishkek.

Kyrgyzstan, a landlocked former Soviet republic of 5.5 million people, also hosts a Russian military air base. Washington and Moscow share concerns about the possible spillover of Islamist militancy as troops withdraw from nearby Afghanistan.

All NATO-led combat troops are due home from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, and mounting bills and war weariness among the public mean there is little chance that foreign troops will be fighting there in significant numbers beyond that date.

The closure of the U.S. base is sure to please the Kremlin, which views former Soviet Central Asia as its sphere of influence.

Former Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, ousted in an April 2010 revolution, promised to close the base after receiving a financial assistance package from Moscow in 2009. He reversed this decision after securing higher U.S. payments.

Atambayev, whose victory may be challenged by candidates who complained of voting abuses, told reporters that he did not believe the U.S. base provided security for his country.

“We know that the United States very often participates in various military conflicts. It happened in Iraq, in Afghanistan and now there is a tense situation with Iran,” he said.

“I wouldn’t want any of these countries one day to make a return strike on the military base. A civilian airport should be a civilian airport.”

Atambayev proposed that the Manas airport could become an international center for civilian airlines.

“We are ready to create a civilian transit hub together with Russia, the United States and any interested state,” he said.

For a story on Kyrgyzstan’s election:

Additional reporting by Olga Dzyubenko; editing by Elizabeth Piper

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