BISHKEK (Reuters) - Kyrgyzstan’s parliament voted overwhelmingly on Thursday to close the last remaining U.S. air base in Central Asia, which serves as a transit point for U.S. troops fighting in nearby Afghanistan.
The planned closure of the Manas air base poses a challenge to new President Barack Obama who plans to send more troops to Afghanistan to boost efforts to defeat Taliban insurgents.
It also 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.
The 90-seat parliament, dominated by the ruling party, voted by 78 to one to approve a government proposal on closing the base. One lawmaker voted against and two abstained. The rest were absent.
“Once all the procedures are over, an official eviction vote will be sent and after that the United States will be given 180 days to wrap up operations at the air base,” Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Kadyrbek Sarbayev said after the vote.
President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s press service said the Kyrgyz leader was due to sign the approved decision into law some time within the next month under Kyrgyz law, but gave no details.
U.S. forces at the base, nestling in the bare steppes outside the capital Bishkek, said its operations would continue as normal in the meantime.
“We are saddened by the decision made today. We have enjoyed our ability to serve here in Kyrgyzstan,” Major Damien Pickart, the air base spokesman, said by telephone.
“We will await official notification but it remains to be seen what the final decision would be.”
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.
Russia has an air base of its own in Kyrgyzstan. It pays no rent as its use is part of a joint security pact.
The United States and its allies already fly troops and supplies to Afghanistan from bases in Europe and the Gulf and could increase this traffic to make up for the loss of Manas.
The United States is also looking at other land routes through Central Asia as alternatives to Pakistan, where supply convoys have been attacked by Taliban militants.
U.S. regional military chief General David Petraeus visited Uzbekistan this week as part of these efforts.
One of the routes, through Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, will soon be tested when a first shipment of non-military goods leaves NATO member Latvia for Afghanistan.
Kyrgyzstan’s opposition has accused Bakiyev of selling out to Russia. Moscow and Kyrgyzstan have denied any connection between the Russian financial package and Bakiyev’s decision.
Some critics said closing the base could breed instability in Kyrgyzstan when the threat of radical Islam is on the rise in Central Asia, a vast region wedged between Russia in the north, Iran and Afghanistan in the south and China in the east.
“At this difficult time, the weakening of the regional security system paves the way for extremism and terrorism,” said Bakyt Beshimov, an opposition politician. “Therefore, we believe the decision (to close the U.S. base) is premature.”
Additional reporting by Olga Dzyubenko, Dmitry Solovyov and Guy Faulconbridge; editing by Andrew Roche