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

By Philip P. Pan and Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 9, 2010; A08

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.

The U.S. military began operations at the Manas base in December 2001, soon after it invaded Afghanistan. In addition to serving as a hub for troops flying back and forth from the war zone, the base is a refueling center for U.S. planes flying missions over Afghanistan and is home to a KC-135 tanker squadron.

Excluding Afghanistan, Manas has been the only U.S. military air base in Central Asia since 2005, when Uzbekistan evicted the United States from the Karshi-Khanabad air base there. The U.S. military separately relies on several overland routes -- mostly via Pakistan and Tajikistan -- to deliver supplies and equipment to Afghanistan.

Alexander Cooley, a Columbia University professor who studies U.S. military relations in Central Asia, said the interim government in Kyrgyzstan was unlikely to order the Americans to leave because the country needs U.S. financial assistance and because the American presence serves as a useful counterbalance to Russia's influence in the region.

But he said the U.S. government had been so intent on securing the base that it had turned a blind eye to corrupt dealings by Bakiyev and his allies. As a result, Cooley said, many Kyrgyz citizens saw Manas as the poisonous fruit of relations with Washington.

"It's symbolized the U.S. disregard for democracy and human rights," he said. "The base took over the entire U.S. foreign policy in dealing with Kyrgyzstan."

Edil Baisalov, an exiled Kyrgyz opposition leader who was boarding a flight in Moscow on Thursday evening to return to Bishkek, said the new government needed to move quickly to implement democratic reforms.

"That's the challenge and the opportunity we face," he said. "We toppled the regime. It happened. But we did it five years ago, too. Have we learned the lessons?"

U.S. officials said they are closely monitoring developments in Kyrgyzstan, but they are being careful not to take sides. In Washington, Assistant Secretary of State Robert O. Blake met briefly with Kadyrbek Sarbayev, the foreign minister under Bakiyev who was in the United States for a previously scheduled visit. Meanwhile, a U.S. diplomat in Bishkek met with Otunbayeva, the interim Kyrgyz leader.

The protests Wednesday were triggered by recent substantial increases in energy bills, but discontent with Bakiyev and his failure to improve the lot of ordinary people in the poor, majority-Muslim country had been growing.

The chaotic scenes this week were almost a rerun of the 2005 demonstrations, which became known as the Tulip Revolution. Five years ago last month, at the end of a day of protests, Bakiyev stood on an armored vehicle outside the main government building, personifying a rush of hope as then-President Askar Akayev fled the country.

Whitlock reported from Washington. Staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan in Washington contributed to this report.

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