Kyrgyzstan rules out US using base after 2014

Kyrgyzstan rules out US using base after 2014 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," said Panetta.

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 the meeting.

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 official suggested.

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.