Kyrgyzstan stalls U.S. airbase closure vote

BISHKEK (Reuters) - Kyrgyzstan delayed a parliamentary vote on the closure of a U.S. air base on Monday by agreeing to send additional paperwork to the chamber, potentially giving Washington more time to try to dissuade it.

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev (R) talks to his Kyrgyz counterpart Kurmanbek Bakiyev during a signing ceremony in Moscow February 3, 2009. REUTERS/Alexander Nemenov/Pool

The former Soviet republic said last week its decision to shut the Manas base, a key staging post for U.S.-led military operations in Afghanistan, was final. However, it has yet to send Washington a formal eviction note.

“We (recommend) the government also submit other draft laws related to the closure,” said Leila Sadykova, head of the parliamentary defense committee which formally approved the government’s decision to shut down the base on Monday.

“We recommend that all these agreements be considered by parliament together,” she said, referring to a broader international package of accords that includes a clause on the U.S. use of Manas. Such a review is certain to delay the vote by at least several days.

The United States says negotiations over Manas are still continuing. Kyrgyzstan, which needs parliamentary approval to go ahead with the decision, has denied that, and its officials on Monday refused to comment.

Observers said the delay, however technical, most likely signaled that negotiations were going on behind closed doors.

“I don’t think it (parliament voting) will happen any time over the next few days,” said Iskhak Masaliyev, a member of parliament. “There must be political reasons to this.”

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Parliament is dominated by supporters of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and its decisions usually reflect his will. Bakiyev said on February 3 that Manas would be shut, just after Russia promised him more than $2 billion in aid and credit, roughly equivalent to half of Kyrgyzstan’s entire Gross Domestic Product.

That led some U.S. officials to believe that Russia, uneasy with the presence of U.S. troops in Central Asia, had piled pressure on the tiny Muslim nation to close the base. Moscow strongly denies that.

Myrza Kaparov, the Kyrgyz government envoy to the assembly, said the government would clarify its position as soon as Wednesday but said voting may not take place until next week.

Closing Manas would pose a problem for new U.S. President Barack Obama who plans to send additional troops to Afghanistan to boost NATO efforts to defeat Taliban insurgents.

It also leaves the United States scrambling to find alternative ways of delivering supplies to its troops in Afghanistan, a crucial task at a time when its main supply route in Pakistan is under pressure from militants.

Following Kyrgyzstan’s announcement, other ex-Soviet states have confirmed plans to allow non-lethal NATO supplies to cross their land en route to Afghanistan.

Tajik leader Imomali Rakhmon, on a visit to Latvia, said his offer included all means of transport including land and air.

“At the request of the United States, we offer all conditions for a rise in the volume of commercial supplies,” he said. Russia, seeking to distance itself from Kyrgyzstan’s decision, and Kazakhstan have also confirmed similar plans.

A spokesman for Manas, tucked away in the snowy foothills on the Tien Shan mountains, said the base continued to operate as usual. “We are waiting for the government’s decision,” he said. “It’s all still up in the air.”

Writing by Maria Golovnina; additional reporting by Patrick Lannin in Riga; Editing by Mark Trevelyan