Kyrgyzstan Says It's Open to Talks on U.S. Base

Kyrgyzstan is willing to negotiate a new deal allowing American troops to operate there despite its recent decision to shut a U.S. air base essential to the war in Afghanistan, the president's spokesman said Thursday.

The Central Asian nation last month ordered the United States to vacate the Manas air base within six months. President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced the closure shortly after Russia pledged $2.15 billion in aid and loans for the impoverished former Soviet nation.

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Presidential spokesman Almaz Turdumamatov said the decision on Manas would not be changed but indicated that a separate arrangement allowing U.S. troops in the country could be negotiated.

"The decision on the base is final and by this year every last American soldier will have left the territory of Kyrgyzstan," he said. "Notwithstanding, the doors for negotiation with the United States are open and we are prepared to consider a new agreement."

The base is a transit point for 15,000 troops and 500 tons of cargo each month to and from Afghanistan. Bakiyev had complained that the United States ignored repeated demands for an increase on the $17.4 million paid in annual rent for the base. The move to revoke the basing agreement with the United States was later overwhelmingly backed by parliament and signed into law.

Losing Manas poses a serious challenge to President Barack Obama's plan to send up to 30,000 more American forces into Afghanistan this year to fight surging Taliban and al-Qaida violence.

Bakiyev told the British Broadcasting Corp. that; "We are ready for any new proposals from the US government aimed at stabilizing the situation in Afghanistan."

Russia and Kyrgyzstan both insist that Moscow's aid package had nothing to do the move to expel the U.S. military from Manas. The Pentagon publicly also said it saw no link between the two announcements, but U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates later accused Russia of "working against us in terms of that airfield, which is clearly important to us."

Russia fears the spiraling violence in Afghanistan but it has also long been wary of the U.S. presence in Central Asia, which it considers its historic sphere of influence.

Moscow has agreed to allow U.S. non-lethal military cargo bound for Afghanistan to transit its territory, and said it might consider allowing weapons and other lethal cargo too.

Bakiyev's tiny, impoverished country is slides further into economic stagnation — a situation that could be worsened by the return of migrant laborers left jobless by downturns in Russia and Kazakhstan.

Crippling electricity shortages and rampant unemployment have caused misery for much of the population, but analysts says the Russian cash could help Bakiyev secure enough political support to win another presidential term in a vote expected to take place by next year.

Kyrgyz authorities have insisted the closure of Manas was a response to the growing tide of dissatisfaction with the U.S. military presence. Public discontent over the base has sharpened in recent years amid a spate of high-profile incidents — most notably, the fatal shooting of a Kyrgyz truck driver at a security point by a U.S. air serviceman.

Many view Kyrgyzstan's position on Manas, however, as a gambit to pressure the United States into paying more rent. Shortly after coming to power in 2005, Bakiyev sucessfully demanded a hike in U.S. payments for the base, a victory that he may be eager to repeat.

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