US not looking for base in Uzbekistan: diplomat
Washington is not looking to put a military base in Uzbekistan, a US diplomat said Wednesday, despite being on the verge of losing a key base in the region used to support operations in Afghanistan, AFP reported.
US Ambassador to Kazakhstan Richard Hoagland denied recent rumours that the United States might ask authoritarian Uzbekistan to host a replacement for Manas airbase in Kyrgyzstan, which has been ordered to close by August 18.
"From the beginning of this issue our secretary of defence Robert Gates said that we have other alternatives to the base in Kyrgyzstan. And we are continuing to study those other alternatives," Hoagland told reporters in Astana.
"But let me tell you that the question of a military base in Uzbekistan is not currently on the table."
Kyrgyzstan, an impoverished ex-Soviet state bordering China, announced in February that the US military must leave the Manas airbase, which is used to ferry tens of thousands of troops in and out of Afghanistan each year.
The decision was widely believed to have been made under Russian pressure, and it came after Moscow agreed to provide over two billion dollars in loans and aid to Kyrgyzstan.
The loss of Manas would deal a major blow to coalition military efforts in Afghanistan at a time when US President Barack Obama has made the campaign a centerpiece of his foreign policy.
Repeated visits by top US officials to Central Asia have fuelled speculation that Washington was looking for a new base, including possibly in Uzbekistan, home to the region's most repressive regime.
Uzbekistan hosted a US base used for operations in Afghanistan until 2005, when a diplomatic row over Tashkent's brutal suppression of an armed uprising soured ties with Washington.
But the announcement by Ambassador Hoagland is likely to further fuel recent speculation that Washington has already reached a deal with Kyrguzstan to keep Manas open beyond the August deadline.