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U.S. airbase in Kyrgyzstan locked up in limbo
Thu Feb 12, 2009 12:57pm EST
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By Maria Golovnina
MANAS AIR BASE, Kyrgyzstan (Reuters) - A U.S. officer squints and covers his ears with his hands when a military plane takes off into the sky over the last remaining U.S. base in Central Asia.
Tucked away in the hills of northern Kyrgyzstan, the Manas air base found itself at the heart of global geopolitics this month after Kyrgyzstan announced its decision to close this key gateway for U.S.-led operations in nearby Afghanistan.
Now the fate of its 1,000 personnel is up in the air as doubts begin to emerge as to when -- and if -- the tiny former Soviet republic would actually implement its decision.
With more than a week since the February 3 announcement, Kyrgyzstan has yet to say when the base would be shut, leading some to suggest it may still opt to reverse its decision.
"We haven't received an official eviction note yet. So we are going to continue with our mission until we are told otherwise," said Major Damien Pickart as he watched a KC-135 tanker plane embark on a refueling mission to Afghanistan.
"Once an arrangement is reached -- whether we decide to increase the rent and stay, or whether they tell us it's time for us to go -- that is when we are going to work out where we are going to operate our forces out of."
Kyrgyzstan has long accused the United States of refusing to heed its calls to pay more rent for the air base, the main refueling point for aircraft used in U.S. Afghan operations.
Many observers believe that Russia, which operates its own military base just few dozen kilometers (miles) away from Manas, had applied pressure on Kyrgyzstan to evict U.S. troops.
Kyrgyzstan's president had made his announcement in Moscow after securing more than $2 billion in Russian aid and credit.
The standoff over this square mile of heavily guarded space, surrounded by swathes of windswept land and Kyrgyz villages, marks a fresh twist in a regional power struggle reminiscent of the 19th-century "Great Game" between Russia and Britain.
Manas, named after a Kyrgyz epic hero, gained particular importance for the United States in 2005 when Uzbekistan, another Central Asian nation, evicted U.S. troops from a military base there in a row over human rights.
Analysts say Kyrgyzstan's move and attacks on the main supply routes into Afghanistan via Pakistan were an early sign of the problems the U.S. administration faced in Afghanistan as it prepares to boost troops numbers in the country.
"Welcome to Freedom's Frontier!" says a large billboard near the main headquarters building of the base, home to the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing which dates back to World War Two years when it led air raids against Germany's oil fields in Romania.
Life appeared to proceed as normal inside a thick layer of barbed wire encircling the base during a visit by a Reuters multimedia team on Thursday. Uniformed men and women shared lunch in the canteen, while others played basketball in the spacious gym. Continued...
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