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US and Kyrgyzstan Sign New Air Base Deal: MP

Olga Dzyubenko

US military cargo planes sit on the runway at the US airbase of Manas in Kyrgyzstan. The United States and Kyrgyzstan signed a deal on the transit of supplies to Afghanistan that will effectively keep open a US airbase that Kyrgyz authorities had ordered shut, officials said Tuesday. (AFP/File/Vyacheslav Oseledko)

BISHKEK - The United States and Kyrgyzstan have signed a deal for U.S. forces to continue using an air base Washington considers vital for its operations in nearby Afghanistan, a Kyrgyz parliamentarian said on Tuesday.

U.S. officials, eager to press ahead with plans to more than double its presence in Afghanistan by year-end, were banking on the ex-Soviet republic reversing its previous order to shut the base by the middle of August.

"The agreement was signed yesterday," deputy Kabai Karabekov told Reuters.

Under the new deal, annual rent for the Manas base, nestled in steppes outside the capital Bishkek, will rise to $60 million from $17.4 million, Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Kadyrbek Sarbayev told the parliamentary defense committee.

Washington also agreed to several large one-off payments.

The base is home to about 1,000 personnel and serves as a key refueling point for aircraft used in Afghanistan.

The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has embarked on a massive build-up of forces in Afghanistan in a bid to quell the growing Taliban insurgency there and troop levels are expected to rise to 68,000 by the end of 2009.

The U.S. will also provide $67 million for Manas airport upgrades, $32 million to combat drug trafficking and terrorism and $20 million for a joint economic development fund, Sarbayev added.

In a copy of the agreement obtained by Reuters, it was not clear if the base will now be used for military or non-military cargo to Afghanistan.

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev has said in the past that the impoverished Central Asian state was ready to transit non-military cargo.

U.S. officials in Bishkek were not immediately available for comment.

The Kyrgyz parliament started reviewing the deal on Tuesday and deputy Rashid Tagayev said it was likely to vote on its ratification later this week.

In February Kyrgyzstan said it would shut the base in August after securing pledges of $2 billion in aid and credit from Russia, which has long expressed discontent with the U.S. military presence in what it sees as its sphere of influence.

Bakiyev said at the time that the U.S. refused to pay a higher rent for using the air base.

(Reporting by Olga Dzyubenko; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov and Amie Ferris-Rotman, edited by Richard Meares)

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