Kyrgyzstan Parliament gave start to the discussion on life of U.S. air base (URGENT)

Kyrgyzstan Materials 19 February 2009 01:22 (UTC +04:00)
Kyrgyzstan Parliament gave start to the discussion on life of U.S. air base (URGENT)

Kyrgyzstan's parliament started up the discussion on Thursday to close a U.S. air base which is a vital transit point for U.S.-led troops fighting in nearby Afghanistan, RIA Novosti reported.

The closing of Manas, the last remaining U.S. air base in Central Asia, poses a challenge to new U.S. President Barack Obama's plans to send additional troops to Afghanistan to boost NATO and U.S. military 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 traditional sphere of interest.

Kyrgyzstan's parliament is all but certain to approve the closure of the base during Thursday's vote, due after 0400 GMT.

"We do not expect any delays and the decision will be taken," Alisher Mamasaliyev, a parliament deputy from the ruling Ak Zhol party, told Reuters on the eve of the vote.

"The Foreign Ministry will then send an official eviction note to the United States government and the air base will be given 180 days to wrap up its operations."

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 more rent for use of the base.

The United States is now looking for alternative supply lines to landlocked Afghanistan as existing routes via Pakistan have become increasingly vulnerable to militant attacks.

U.S. regional military chief General David Petraeus visited Uzbekistan this week as part of these efforts.

One of the alternative routes, through Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, will soon be tested when a first shipment of non-military goods leaves NATO member Latvia for Afghanistan via their territories.

Washington sent troops to Afghanistan after the attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.

Kyrgyzstan's opposition has criticised Bakiyev for his decision and accused him of selling out to Russia. Moscow and Kyrgyzstan have denied any connection between the Russian financial package and Bakiyev's decision.

"This $2 billion has been paid in order to convince Kyrgyzstan to close the base," said Bakyt Beshimov, an opposition politician.

"I am saddened by the fact that Kyrgyzstan's image has now been so seriously tarnished." (Writing by Maria Golovnina; additional reporting by Olga Dzyubenko; editing by Angus MacSwan)