U.S. still looking to keep Kyrgyzstan base: Pentagon

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon said on Thursday it was still looking at what it could offer Kyrgyzstan to keep a U.S. air base in the central Asian state open, despite a decision by the country’ parliament to close it.

The Manas air base is a key transit point for U.S. forces fighting insurgents in Afghanistan, where the United States plans to add an extra 17,000 troops under orders announced this week by President Barack Obama.

Kyrgyzstan’s 90-seat parliament, dominated by the ruling party, voted earlier on Thursday by 78 to one to approve a government proposal on closing the base.

“We continue to consider what we might be able to offer the (Kyrgyzstan) government but we’re not prepared to stay at any price and we continue to look at other options that are available to us,” Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said.

“Manas ... is an important base for our operations in Afghanistan but it’s not irreplaceable,” he told reporters.

The parliament’s decision comes at a time of heightened rivalry between Moscow and Washington for control of Central Asia, a vast former Soviet region still seen by Russia as part of its sphere of interest.

President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced the closure plans this month after accepting more than $2 billion in aid and credit from traditional ally Russia. He has accused Washington of refusing to pay a higher rent for use of the base.

The United States says it pays $17.4 million per year for the use of the base and provides a total of about $150 million in assistance to Kyrgyzstan annually.

The U.S. State Department said it had been notified that the Kyrgyz parliament had approved the decision to close the base and Washington was considering its options.

“We continue to assess the situation and will carefully weigh all options. While we value the Manas Air Base, we always have alternatives in the support and maintenance of our operations,” said a State Department official.

Reporting by Andrew Gray and Sue Pleming, Writing by Andrew Gray; Editing by Howard Goller