Kyrgyzstan wants to replace Pentagon fuel contractors

The U.S. base at Manas houses planes like this CK-135 tanker that provide refueling over Afghanistan.
The U.S. base at Manas houses planes like this CK-135 tanker that provide refueling over Afghanistan. (Andrew Higgins)

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By Andrew Higgins and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 22, 2010

NEW YORK - In a move that could complicate Washington's war effort in Afghanistan, the Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan wants to bar Pentagon contractors from supplying jet fuel to a U.S. air base that is critical to the Afghan campaign.

In an interview, Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbayeva said private companies handling supplies should be replaced by a joint venture between a Kyrgyz state company and Russia's state-controlled Gazpromneft, a major source of jet fuel in the region.

Such an arrangement, Otunbayeva said, would reduce corruption, increase transparency and end "the absolutely dark corner" of Pentagon contracts. She estimated that her country would collect $50 million a year by cutting out middlemen.

But the plan would provide Moscow with direct leverage over an American base outside the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, that serves as a vital logistics hub for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.

Moscow has long been wary of the U.S. military presence in Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic that Russia considers to be in its sphere of influence. Russia has frequently used Gazprom, the parent company of Gazpromneft, as an instrument of political and diplomatic pressure.

Otunbayeva, however, said she had discussed the U.S. air base, known as the Manas Transit Center, with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and was under no pressure to push out the Americans, who pay an annual rent of $60 million to the Kyrgyz government. Putting fuel supplies in the hands of a Kyrgyz-Russian joint venture, she added, would boost trust between Moscow and Washington and serve President Obama's policy of seeking a "reset" in relations with Russia.

"We want to make absolutely clear and sure that there will be no middle people in between but a straight supply to American planes," said Otunbayeva, who is visiting New York to attend the U.N. General Assembly.

The Pentagon has relied since 2003 on two Gibraltar-registered companies for the supply of jet fuel to Manas and also to Bagram air base in Afghanistan. The companies - Mina Corp. and Red Star Enterprises - are closely affiliated and have together been awarded Pentagon contracts worth more than $2 billion. Their ownership has not been made public, but they are believed to be largely controlled by Douglas Edelman, an American. Managers include several former U.S. military officers.

Mina and Red Star have won plaudits from the Pentagon for providing reliable fuel deliveries but have been dogged by controversy, including allegations that they worked with corrupt relatives of two of Kyrgyzstan's former presidents.

The last government was toppled in April after a revolution fueled in part by public anger over rampant corruption.

A congressional investigation is looking into the allegations against Red Star and Mina. Senior U.S. officials who visited Kyrgyzstan after the April revolution were berated by the new government for allegedly turning a blind eye to corruption, particularly in relation to fuel contracts.

John Lough, a spokesman for Mina and Red Star, said the companies have been "cooperating fully" with the congressional probe and believe that it "will confirm their integrity." He described allegations of corruption against the companies as "reckless and false" and said "crony companies" close to the new Kyrgyz government are maneuvering to take over the jet fuel contracts. "This is particularly disturbing given the international community's high hopes for the interim government" of Otunbayeva, he said.


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