Future of U.S. air base in turbulent Kyrgyzstan uncertain

The opposition in Kyrgyzstan said Thursday it had formed an interim government, after the president fled following street clashes the day before. Buildings and cars were still burning in the morning.
By Philip P. Pan and Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 9, 2010

BISHKEK, KYRGYZSTAN -- Rival political groups were vying for control of this Central Asian republic Thursday, a day after protesters toppled the president for the second time in five years, raising fresh doubts about the future of a U.S. air base here that is critical to the NATO troop surge in Afghanistan.

President Kurmanbek Bakiyev refused to step down, but he remained in hiding as opposition leaders declared they would form an interim government and were in control of the capital, Bishkek, and most of the provinces.

Dawn arrived in Bishkek on Friday to reveal a city scarred from a second night of violence, though residents said civilian militias had restored order to much of the downtown area. Garbage and broken glass littered streets lined with looted stores, while the charred remains of a few police and military vehicles sat outside the seat of government, the White House, which had been ransacked and burned, along with the chief prosecutor's building. Across the boulevard was an abandoned armored personnel carrier, its tires slashed and an empty beer bottle sitting on the hood.

At least 75 people were killed and hundreds injured when security forces fired on protesters, who fought back and stormed key installations Wednesday.

Opposition leaders said they had no immediate plans to close the U.S. air base at Manas International Airport, a major transit hub for personnel and equipment en route to Afghanistan. But they indicated that, at a minimum, Washington would be forced to negotiate fresh terms to maintain the military installation, less than a year after the Bakiyev government tripled the rent and extracted $150 million in other concessions.

The instability in Kyrgyzstan could complicate President Obama's plan to send 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan as part of an even larger NATO buildup there. In March, 50,000 U.S. and allied forces heading to and from Afghanistan transited through the Manas air base, more than three times the monthly average last year.

U.S. officials said they were forced to curtail flights at Manas on Thursday and confine all troops to the base.

Roza Otunbayeva, a former foreign minister and ambassador to the United States, was named the leader of the interim government. She suggested that the new government would honor the U.S. lease for the base at Manas, which expires in July. But she made no promises beyond that, saying at a news conference, "We still have some questions on it."

Several opposition leaders had criticized Bakiyev for agreeing to host the base and the Obama administration for overlooking his government's human rights abuses and suppression of democratic freedoms.

One leader of the interim coalition said the lease on the base might not last, citing Russia's support for Bakiyev's removal. Last year, Moscow thought it had persuaded Bakiyev to expel the U.S. military, but he changed his mind after Washington agreed to pay more.

"You've seen the level of Russia's joy when they saw Bakiyev's ouster," Omurbek Tekebayev, a former opposition leader now in charge of constitutional matters, told the Reuters news agency. "So now there is a high probability that the duration of the U.S. air base's presence in Kyrgyzstan will be shortened."

Russia has operated an air base in the city of Kant -- about 40 miles from Manas -- since 2003.

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