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Kyrgyzstan takes step towards U.S. air base closure

BISHKEK (Reuters) - Kyrgyzstan moved a step closer to evicting U.S. troops on Monday after the government sent to parliament the final package of documents required to close down an air base used to support U.S. forces in nearby Afghanistan.

C-17 Globemaster takes off past a KC-135 Stratotanker at Manas Air Base near Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek, February 13, 2009. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced in early February that he had decided to close the Manas air base because Washington had refused to pay more rent for it.

But the process has since stalled, leading some to suggest the impoverished ex-Soviet republic may change its mind if offered more money.

Parliament, dominated by Bakiyev’s party, had been due to vote on the move shortly after the original announcement but later asked officials to submit a number of follow-up documents.

“The package of documents has been now received by parliament,” said a parliament spokesman. He refused to say when the assembly would now vote on it. Kyrgyz officials say voting may not take place for weeks, possibly until April.

Washington, while saying it has alternative ways of delivering troops and supplies to Afghanistan, wants to prevent the closure of Manas at a time when the new U.S. administration seeks to boost its troops fighting insurgents in Afghanistan.

The United States says negotiations over Manas are continuing but Kyrgyzstan says its decision is final.

A source in Kyrgyzstan, speaking anonymously due to the sensitivity of the matter, confirmed that talks with Washington were indeed under way but refused to say what they were about.

Bakiyev made his announcement in Russia after securing a package of more than $2 billion in Russian aid and credit.

Analysts say Moscow, which operates its own air base in Kyrgyzstan, may have applied pressure on Kyrgyzstan as it seeks to squeeze the United States in a region it sees as part of its traditional sphere of interest.

The U.S. government pays $17.4 million a year for the base. Its total assistance to Kyrgyzstan is $150 million a year. Russia pays nothing for its Kant base as its use is part of a joint security pact, according to the Kyrgyz defence ministry.

Under the Moscow deal, Russia is due to start transferring a credit of $300 million to Kyrgyzstan by the late April.