Aircraft Still Take Off in U.S. Airbase in Kyrgyzstan, Despite Threat of Closure

Aircraft took off throughout the day and workers built a new fire station at this vital military base Thursday despite Kyrgyzstan's plans to shut down a facility seen as essential to the war in Afghanistan.

The Manas air base works around the clock as the main air transportation hub for coalition efforts in Afghanistan, acting as a transit point for hundreds of troops and 500 tons of cargo moving in and out of the region each month. It is also a key link for medical evacuations from Afghanistan, which has seen rising violence and allied casualties.

Within a few minutes Thursday morning, a KC-135 Stratotanker departed for Afghanistan, while a huge C-17 Globemaster cargo aircraft landed.

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev shocked Washington last week by announcing the closure of the Manas air base. Losing access to the facility poses a serious challenge to President Barack Obama's plan to send up to 30,000 more U.S. forces to fight surging Taliban and Al Qaeda violence in Afghanistan.

About 75 percent of U.S. supplies to Afghanistan travel through Pakistan but increasing militant attacks on depots and truck convoys there have raised doubts about the security of supply routes.

But a final decision on the base has since been put off until March, leaving open the possibility that the Americans could still negotiate a deal to retain their only base in Central Asia.

At the base, however, servicemen were too busy to worry about the future of Manas, a spokesman said.

"The mission here keeps people pretty busy," said Maj. Damien Pickart, a native of Blairstown, Iowa. "If we had a lot of time on our hands for something other than work, we might be thinking about (the future of the base) a little more."

Most of the aircraft at Manas are KC-135s, which refuel smaller planes on extended reconnaissance and attack missions. Last year, the Stratotankers flew more than 3,200 sorties out of Manas and refueled around 11,400 aircraft.

About 1,000 U.S. troops — and dozens each of French and Spanish — work at the base to move thousands of troops a year through the facility for the Afghan campaign.

Since the U.S. Air Force arrived at Manas in late 2001, the base has been converted from a crumbling and abandoned Soviet-era military facility into a garrison complete with an indoor basketball court and gym, a bar and games room, a cinema and wireless Internet access.

Servicemen based at Manas live in windowless two-story cabins. Troops traveling to Afghanistan are settled in giant tents housing several dozen bunks.

The main entrance is heavily guarded. The asphalt road running past the base's entrance turns into a dirt track that leads to a ramshackle village.

Local contractors were still at work Thursday on improving facilities at Manas, despite government assurances the decision to close the base will not be reversed.

Akyl Mamyrov, who heads a team of workers building the fire station, expressed some misgivings about the possible fallout of a closure.

"That could take a lot of money out of the economy, because in addition to paying workers' salaries, we also buy from local suppliers," Mamyrov said.

Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, said last month that the U.S. pumps $150 million annually into Kyrgyzstan's economy, including $63 million for rent and services at Manas.

Russia announced a $2.15 billion aid package for impoverished Kyrgyzstan last week shortly before Bakiyev's statement about ending the U.S. presence. Russian officials have denied any connection between the two.

Kyrgyzstan's parliamentary spokesman said Thursday that a vote on the proposal to close Manas will wait until after high-level U.S.-Russian talks, raising the possibility the United States could still negotiate a last-minute deal to save Manas.

The final decision will be taken no earlier than March, spokesman Emil Niyazov said.

Parliament has to give its approval before the government can issue a formal eviction notice. Troops then have 180 days to vacate the facility.

The United States set up Manas and a base in neighboring Uzbekistan in 2001 to back operations in Afghanistan. Uzbekistan expelled U.S. troops from the base on its territory in 2005, leaving Manas as the only U.S. military facility in the immediate region.