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US Kyrgyzstan Airbase Deal Reached: Rent Will Triple

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BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — The former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan tentatively approved a deal on Tuesday that should allow the U.S. to continue shipping military hardware and troops crucial to operations in Afghanistan through an air base in the Central Asian state.

U.S. forces had in February been ordered out of the Manas air base by a presidential decree that stunned Washington and drew suspicion that Kyrgyzstan was acting under the influence of Russia, which staunchly opposes Western military presence near its borders. Russia also has a base in Kyrgyzstan.

But the deal approved Tuesday by a Kyrgyz parliamentary committee apparently would allow the American base to remain open and continue to be used by U.S. forces to transport weaponry and ammunition. That should provide a much-needed boost as the U.S.-led coalition ramps up its military operations against Taliban and al-Qaida fighters in Afghanistan.

The deal's biggest change is likely to be the cost _ more than three times the current $17.4 million annual rent for the base.

The final details of the deal, however, are likely to remain unclear at least Friday, when the full Kyrgyz parliament is expected to vote, but a significant departure from the current arrangement was not expected.

As well as troops and armor transit, the Manas base is used to refuel tanker planes that administer air-to-air refueling of allied jets circling Afghan skies _ and is also a key medical evacuation point.

U.S. forces have had access to Manas, outside Bishkek, since 2001. The base became even more important to the Afghan war effort after neighboring Uzbekistan evicted U.S. troops from a base there.

Militants have stepped up attacks on the main route for U.S. military supplies to Afghanistan through Pakistan _ although the military maintains this has little impact on its operations.

Analysts, meanwhile, say Russia, which grudgingly accepted the agreement, may have approved it in the hope of U.S. concessions on issues that have badly strained its relations with Washington _ such as NATO's possible expansion eastward and a planned U.S. missile defense complex in central Europe.

"Reaching this agreement is, of course, Kyrgyzstan's sovereign right," said a Russian Foreign Ministry statement released after Tuesday's deal was announced.

President Kurmanbek Bakiyev stunned Washington in February when he announced that U.S. forces would be evicted from Manas, saying Washington was not paying enough, among other concerns.

The announcement followed within hours of Moscow's pledge of more than $2 billion in aid, loans and investment for Kyrgyzstan.

On Tuesday, Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Kadyrbek Sarbayev said his country is concerned about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the possibility that it could destabilize the entire Central Asia region.

That is a reversal of the position in February, when official statements cited improving Afghan security as a reason for closing Manas.

President Barack Obama recently sent a message of thanks to Bakiyev for Kyrgyzstan's support of U.S.-led military operations in Afghanistan, according to U.S. Embassy officials in Bishkek.

Sarbayev told Russian lawmakers that in addition to the rise in lease costs, Washington also will allocate $37 million to build new aircraft parking slots and storage areas, plus $30 million for new navigation systems.

The U.S. Embassy called the Kyrgyz committee's decision a crucial boost for coalition forces.

"We applaud the decision by the Kyrgyz Republic to continue to play a key role as the international community broadens and deepens its commitment to bringing stability and security to Afghanistan and the region," spokeswoman Michelle Yerkin said.

Manas' outgoing commander said the past year has been the busiest for the base because of the situation in Afghanistan. Col. Christopher Bence said last week that 189,000 personnel had been sent to and from Afghanistan through Manas in the past year. There were 6,370 flights from the base, and it refueled aircraft with 204 million pounds (92 million kilograms) of fuel, he said.

Last week, Afghan leader Hamid Karzai asked Bakiyev to allow coalition forces to continue using Manas.

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