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Tajikistan Ready to Fill Kyrgyzstan Gap; Help US with Afghanistan Supplies
DUSHANBE - Tajikistan said Friday it was ready to allow US and NATO supplies for Afghanistan to transit its territory, after neighbouring Kyrgyzstan ordered the closure of a vital American airbase.
The decision by the Kyrgyz government to shut down the Manas airbase has troubled Washington, which had used the facility as a vital route for flying in supplies for coalition forces in Afghanistan.
Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon said after meeting the US ambassador that his country was ready to allow supplies including construction materials, medicines, fuel and water to transit its soil by road.
"Tajikistan is ready to offer the United States and NATO countries help with the transit of humanitarian and commercial supplies to Afghanistan," he said in a statement.
He said the supplies would be of a non-military nature and should be not just for the benefit of coalition forces.
"They should be destined not only for the military but it is also important they are used for the reconstruction of Afghanistan," he added.
US ambassador Tracey Ann Jacobson said the transit would take place by land and would employ a new bridge over the Panj river funded by Washington that opened in August 2007 and links the south of Tajikistan with Afghanistan.
She said a delegation from the United States would soon come to Tajikistan to discuss the issue.
Tajikistan, an impoverished former Soviet republic that is currently experiencing severe electricity shortages, has a 1,340-kilometre (830-mile) border with Afghanistan.
The US has been seeking to increase the number of supply routes to Afghanistan, including in post-Soviet Central Asia, as extremist attacks have plagued the main transport corridor through Pakistan.
But its ambitions were dealt a severe blow when the Kyrgyz president announced on a visit to Moscow that he would order the closure of the base.
His announcement came the same day Russia announced a loan and aid package worth over two billion dollars for his country.
The Kyrgyz government said Friday the closure decision was final and it was now in talks with the Americans about when exactly it will be shut down.
"The government of Kyrgyzstan has taken its final decision about the closure of the American airbase," government spokesman Aibek Sultangaziev told AFP.
"The issue is now with parliament which must cancel the agreement on the base with the United States."
The head of the Kyrgyz national security council, Adakhan Madumarov, also scotched US hopes of talks to change Bishkek's mind, saying there were "no negotiations with the American side over the bases."
"The fate of the air base has been decided," he said.
The Manas base, operated by about 1,000 troops including small French and Spanish contingents, was set up to support coalition forces fighting to oust the Taliban in Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the decision "regrettable" Thursday but said US operations in the region would continue to be effective.
The closure of the base would strain US supply lines at a time when President Barack Obama is preparing to nearly double the 36,000-strong force in Afghanistan.
But Russia also said that it would allow the transit of non-military supplies as soon as the US detailed what items needed to move across its soil for NATO forces in Afghanistan.
"As soon as that happens we will give the corresponding permission," said Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, according to Russian news agencies.
He said this permission would activate an agreement signed in April 2008 between Russia and NATO for the transit of non-military supplies across Russian territory for NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Lavrov also played down the importance of the Kyrgyz base closure for NATO forces. "There are a mass of possibilities about how to increase the potential of the anti-terrorist coalition," he said.