U.S. walks careful line on Kyrgyzstan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States on Thursday said it would take no side on the Kyrgyzstan uprising, scrambling to balance links to both the ousted president and the self-proclaimed new rulers of a country that hosts a key U.S. air base.

State Department officials said Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Kadyrbek Sarbayev met a top U.S. diplomat in Washington, while the U.S. charge d’affaires in the Kyrgyz capital met opposition leader Roza Otunbayeva.

“Our message to both is the same,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told a news briefing. “We will continue to urge them to resolve this in a peaceful way.”

The White House, too, called for calm and said it looked forward to Kyrgyzstan returning to the democratic path following this week’s violence, which killed at least 75 people and chased President Kurmanbek Bakiyev from the capital.

But U.S. officials have not yet stated clearly who Washington believes is in control of the Central Asian country of 5.3 million, maintaining a delicate ambiguity until a victor in the struggle becomes clear.

“Our interests are to have good relations with the government of Kyrgyzstan -- whatever that emerges to be. So it’s tricky,” said James Collins, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow now with the Carnegie Endowment think-tank.

“It is important for the American side not to get drawn into the fight, because no matter what happens, we are not going to be very important in shaping the outcome.”

Crowley declined to give specifics of Sarbayev’s meeting with Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake, or of the meeting between a U.S. official and Otunbayeva, other than to say that both were short.

“We have expressed our concern about Kyrgyzstan and corruption within its government. We want to see Kyrgyzstan continue to develop on a path to democracy,” he said.

But more immediate U.S. interests in Kyrgyzstan focus on the U.S. air base at Manas which supports military operations in nearby Afghanistan -- a role which has grown more important as President Barack Obama’s troop “surge” takes hold.


The United States nearly lost the base last year when Kyrgyzstan’s government ordered U.S. forces out. It later relented and allowed them to stay after bargaining for more money.

U.S. officials said the Manas base was conducting limited operations, but could be back to full operation soon.

“Our support to Afghanistan continues and has not been seriously affected. And we are hopeful that we will be able to resume full operations soon,” Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters.

But U.S. worries over Manas were fueled when a senior Russian official -- who was in Prague to witness Obama sign a landmark nuclear disarmament pact with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev -- said Moscow would urge Kyrgyzstan’s new leaders to close the U.S. base.

Russia takes strong interest in Central Asian republics once part of the Soviet Union, and a Kyrgyz opposition figure said Russia had played a role in this week’s events.

Crowley, the State Department spokesman, said it was too early to address suggestions a new Kyrgyzstan government might seek to renegotiate the lease for Manas, or close it.

“We have an existing agreement with the government of Kyrgyzstan,” he said.

Samuel Charap, a fellow at the Center for American Progress, said it was unlikely that Russia was directly behind the Kyrgyz uprising and that many statements of support cited by both sides in the Kyrgyzstan standoff could be purely for domestic consumption.

“Russia will always have more carrots and more sticks in Central Asia than the United States does, so if they want to kill (the base), they could do it. But they haven’t done that yet,” he told Reuters in an interview.

Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed, Matt Spetalnick and Phil Stewart in Washington; editing by Mohammad Zargham