Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan): Kyrgyzstan on Tuesday
warned visiting US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta that
American forces could not use a strategic air base for any
military mission after the current lease expires in 2014.
The Manas air base at Bishkek airport serves as a crucial
hub for the NATO-led force in Afghanistan and US officials are
concerned about the future of Manas as they review plans for
troop deployments beyond mid-2014.
At the start of a meeting with the Pentagon chief,
Busurmankul Tabaldiev, the secretary of Kyrgyzstan's Defence
Council, said in front of reporters that after 2014 "there
should be no military mission" at the Manas base.
He said the airport was a civilian, commercial enterprise
and that Kyrgyzstan had "shown readiness" to support the
non-military use of the transit centre beyond July 2014, when
the current rental deal runs out.
Panetta, in his first official visit to the capital
Bishkek for talks as Pentagon chief, expressed appreciation
for access to the base.
"I would ask that you convey my thanks to the president
for his continued support for the transit centre at Manas,"
Reporters were then escorted out and could not hear the
rest of his remarks as the discussions continued. Taalaybek
Omuraliev, Kyrgyzstan's defence minister, was also present at
Before arriving in Bishkek, Panetta had said he would
speak to Kyrgyz leaders about the "importance" of the air
base, a vital transit point used to ferry troops to
Afghanistan, refuel warplanes and evacuate wounded soldiers.
"I want to thank them and ensure that relationship can
continue into the future as well," Panetta told reporters
aboard his plane.
Kyrgyzstan's newly inaugurated President Almazbek
Atambayev in December said it was "very dangerous" for his
government to host the US military at Manas, outside Bishkek,
and has threatened the Americans with eviction when the
current lease expires in 2014.
The visit was part of an effort by the United States to
persuade Atambayev to leave the door open to renewing access
to the Manas base after the current deal ends, a US defence
The US presence has irritated Russia, placing Kyrgyzstan
at the centre of a power rivalry for regional influence.
Manas, which hosts about 1,500 US troops and contractors
and a fleet of KC-135 refuelling tanker aircraft, operates
round-the-clock, with planes transporting thousands of troops
and hundreds of tonnes of cargo every month.
First Published: Wednesday, March 14, 2012, 00:34