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Kyrgyzstan says U.S. troops can continue using base

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan—Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice received firm assurances Tuesday that U.S. military forces can use a key logistics base here to support combat operations in Afghanistan and face no near-term deadline to withdraw.

The commitment comes 10 weeks after the government of neighboring Uzbekistan served an eviction notice on U.S. troops operating from a larger base there. The move was in retaliation for Washington's criticism of Uzbekistan's bloody crackdown on unarmed protesters.

Kyrgyzstan's written commitment to hosting U.S. troops appears to shore up the U.S. position in Central Asia, at least for now.

The region is a major launching pad for anti-terrorist operations and an arena for intense jockeying with Russia, the traditional power in the area.

President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, at a press conference with Rice, said the presence of U.S. and allied forces at the Manas air base outside the capital "will be necessary until the situation in Afghanistan is completely stabilized."

Bakiyev backed away from a joint demand by Russia, China and most Central Asian states in July that the United States set a deadline for withdrawing its troops from the region.

A joint U.S.-Kyrgyz statement Tuesday says that coalition forces can remain at Manas "until the mission of fighting terror in Afghanistan is completed."

The base hosts 1,200 U.S. personnel, along with smaller numbers of French and Spanish troops. It's used to rotate about 200 troops into Afghanistan each day and to stage tanker aircraft. This week, it's also being used to route relief supplies headed for Pakistan's earthquake-afflicted areas.

U.S. officials said it was the first time that they've secured a written commitment on the subject.

But they acknowledged that the base can't fully replace the one in Uzbekistan, known as Karshi-Khanabad, or "K2."

"We can pick up a lot of what was happening out of K2 here. We can't get everything," said an official accompanying Rice, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was involved in the negotiations.

The United States promised that it would provide full transparency for the fees it pays Kyrgyzstan for base operations. Some Kyrgyz officials have alleged that U.S. payments for jet fuel wound up in the pockets of the family of former president Askar Akayev.

Rice's stop in Kyrgyzstan, a landlocked nation of 5 million people, was the first of a three-day, four-nation Central Asian swing.

She's attempting to balance goals that often conflict: meeting U.S. security needs and pushing the region's wary governments toward more political and economic reform.

Bakiyev rode to power in March's "tulip revolution," when nonviolent demonstrators protesting flawed parliamentary elections ended Akayev's 15-year rule.

Bakiyev was elected in his own right in July. He's promised to enact reform, and particularly to fight corruption, but his ability and long-term commitment remain untested.

Rice, speaking at a forum on rewriting Kyrgyzstan's Soviet-era constitution, praised the recent trend. But she cautioned that "a democracy must deliver for its people."

Human rights activist Maria Lisitsyna, who was in the audience, said the political atmosphere in Kyrgyzstan has relaxed since March. But, she said, security forces remain abusive and unaccountable.

"Still, a lot, a lot of abuse," said Lisitsyna, the director of the Youth Human Rights Group. "We don't see yet political will to really change it."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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