BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — Kyrgyzstan on March 13 warned visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that American forces could not use a strategic air base for any military mission after the current lease expires in 2014.
Manas Air Base at the Bishkek airport serves as a crucial hub for the NATO-led force in Afghanistan, and U.S. 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 center 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 defense 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 U.S. 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 Manas after the current deal ends, a U.S. defense official suggested.
“We think that there may be some longer-term wiggle room there, so we’re not ruling anything out,” the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told reporters. “It’s important that we underscore to them and to this new president that it is in fact very important to us.”
The U.S. administration also hopes to make the case that supporting the war effort in Afghanistan serves Kyrgyzstan’s interests, by boosting stability in the region, the official added.
After Kyrgyzstan threatened to cancel U.S. access to the base in 2009, Washington secured a new deal by agreeing to triple the rent paid to Bishkek.
The United States now pays $60 million a year for use of the base, up from an earlier annual fee of about $17 million, officials said.
The U.S. presence has irritated Russia, placing Kyrgyzstan at the center of a power rivalry for regional influence.
Manas, which hosts about 1,500 U.S. troops and contractors and a fleet of KC-135 refueling tanker aircraft, operates round-the-clock, with planes transporting thousands of troops and hundreds of tons of cargo every month.
Last year, the base oversaw 4,786 refueling flights.