WASHINGTON– The United States hopes to continue operations at Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan, but would use other means to support troops in Afghanistan if the Kyrgyz government goes through with plans to close it, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said today. Neither the State Department nor the Defense Department has received official word that Kyrgyzstan plans to discontinue its three-year arrangement with the United States, Whitman told Pentagon reporters.

But Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev reportedly announced plans to close the base yesterday after meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow. News reports said Medvedev promised debt forgiveness and extensive financial aid to Kyrgyzstan during the session.

The United States pays $17.4 million a year to use the air base, a major logistical and refueling hub supporting international troops in Afghanistan, Whitman said. The United States and Kyrgyzstan signed a “protocol of intentions” in 2006 that allowed the United States to renew the arrangement in one-year increments through July 2011.

Overall, U.S. government assistance programs for Kyrgyzstan total about $150 million a year, Whitman said.

The closure plan, if implemented, would affect about 15,000 people and 500 tons of cargo that transit through Manas each month, Whitman said. About 1,000 troops, most of them American, but some from France and Spain, are assigned to the base.

“It is a hugely important air base for us,” Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said during yesterday’s Pentagon news briefing. “It provides us with a launching-off point to provide supplies to our forces in Afghanistan. We very much appreciate the support the Kyrgyz have given us in the use of that base, and we hope to continue using it.”

The State Department is leading discussions with the Kyrgyz government, but U.S. military officials also have weighed in with their support. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command, and Air Force Gen. Duncan J. McNabb, commander of U.S. Transportation Command, both have urged the Kyrgyz government to authorize its continued use.

“We are actively involved in discussions with the Kyrgyz government about the continued use of Manas,” Morrell said yesterday.

Whitman said Manas Air Base contributes to the security and stability not only of Afghanistan, but also Central Asia. The base hosted earthquake relief and supply efforts for Pakistan in 2005.

Should Kyrgyzstan close Manas, Whitman said, the United States will use other means to support U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

“While we value the relationship we have and the arrangements we have with Manas, the United States would certainly be able to continue operations in Afghanistan if we did not have that facility,” he said. “We are talking about the United States military — the most flexible, adaptable, capable, innovative military in the world.”

Manas is the only U.S. air base in Central Asia. Uzbekistan closed its base, Karshi-Khanabad –– known as “K-2” — to the United States in 2005. K-2 had supported military and humanitarian operations since just after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

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