BISHKEK (Reuters) - Kyrgyzstan said on Friday its decision to shut a U.S. air base was final, dealing a blow to Washington’s efforts to retain what has been an important staging post for U.S. forces fighting in Afghanistan.
The United States said it was still “engaged” with Kyrgyzstan about keeping the Manas base in the poor, former Soviet republic and traditional Russian ally. But one senior Kyrgyz official said no talks were currently taking place.
Kyrgyzstan’s stance has set a tough challenge for new U.S. President Barack Obama, who plans to send more troops to Afghanistan to try to boost NATO efforts to defeat Taliban and al Qaeda insurgents.
The standoff over the tiny but strategically placed nation marks a new twist in an escalating power struggle in Central Asia reminiscent of the 19th-century “Great Game” between tsarist Russia and the British Empire.
“The air base’s fate has been decided,” Adakhan Madumarov, secretary of the Kyrgyz Security Council, told reporters.
“I see no reason why the air base should remain in place now that this decision has been taken ... We are not holding any talks on this,” he added, hinting there will be no further discussions with Washington on the air base.
In Washington, a State Department spokesman said the United States had been in discussions with the Kyrgyzstan government but had not received formal word about the base’s future.
“We are waiting for them to respond to us about the disposition of the base,” spokesman Gordon Duguid said. “They have not told us that they have reached a final decision through official channels.”
Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced the closure of the base this week after securing more than $2 billion in financial aid and credit from Russia at talks in Moscow.
The announcement left the United States scrambling to find alternative supply routes through other parts of Central Asia for shipments bound for landlocked Afghanistan.
Speaking in Tajikistan, another ex-Soviet republic in Central Asia, the U.S. envoy to Dushanbe said Tajikistan had agreed to offer its air space for transport of non-military NATO supplies to Afghanistan.
A Western diplomatic source told Reuters separately on Thursday the United States was close to a deal with Uzbekistan that would also allow Washington to open a new railway supply route for its troops in Afghanistan.
The United States, also seeking to reinforce supply routes to Afghanistan that bypass Pakistan where convoys face security risks, says it is still hopeful the base can be retained. “We’re still very much engaged,” said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman.
Asked if Washington had made any additional offers over the base, Kyrgyz Prime Minister Igor Chudinov said: “We have not received any proposals.” He says Kyrgyzstan wants to shut the base because it disagrees with U.S. methods in Afghanistan.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described Kyrgyzstan’s actions as “regrettable” on Thursday.
“We will proceed in a very effective manner no matter what the outcome of the Kyrgyzstan government’s deliberations might be,” she said of military operations in Afghanistan.
Russia, irked by the U.S. military presence in Kyrgyzstan which it regards as part of its strategic sphere of interest, has long exerted pressure on the landlocked and mountainous Central Asian country to evict the U.S. forces.
NATO says it is concerned about Russia’s possible involvement in the Kyrgyz decision. Moscow, which operates its own military base in Kyrgyzstan, has strongly denied any link between its aid package and the move to shut Manas.
Moscow says it is ready for cooperation over Afghanistan. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia had agreed to allow non-military NATO cargo to transit through its territory.
“We expect that when our U.S. partners are ready to send us a concrete request with the volume and type of cargo, as soon as we receive it we will give our permission,” he told Russia’s Vesti-24 television.
The Russian aid package, unanimously approved by the Kyrgyz parliament on Friday, includes a $1.7 billion discounted loan to help Kyrgyzstan build a hydroelectric power plant.
The Kyrgyz government needs parliamentary approval to proceed with the closure, but this is seen as a formality as the chamber is controlled by a pro-presidential party. It is expected to vote next week.
Writing by Maria Golovnina; Additional reporting by Roman Kozhevnikov in Tajikistan, Conor Humphries in Moscow, John Whitesides in Washington; Editing by Eric Beech