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Kyrgyz parliament votes to close U.S. airbase - 3


(Adds U.S. defense secretary comment in paras 13-14) BISHKEK, February 19 (RIA Novosti) - Kyrgyzstan's parliament voted overwhelmingly on Thursday to approve a presidential proposal to close a U.S. airbase used to support NATO operations in nearby Afghanistan since 2001. The move to close the base was supported by 78 lawmakers, with one against. The pro-presidential Ak Zhol party has 70 seats in the single-chamber, 90-member legislature. President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced plans to close the only U.S.base in Central Asia after talks in Moscow in early February, when he secured more than $2 billion in aid and loans. Both Russia and Kyrgyzstan have denied any link between the aid deal and the closure of the base, located a short distance from the capital, Bishkek. Bakiyev said Washington had refused to pay more for the base. He also linked the move to the conduct of U.S. military personnel, including the killing of a Kyrgyz national by a U.S. soldier in December 2006. Kabai Karabekov, the head of the parliament's foreign affairs committee, said that the closure of the base would not mean that Kyrgyzstan was pulling out of the fight against terrorism. "All interested countries should probably alter their outlook towards the Afghan problem. As time has shown, a military doctrine for restoring order in Afghanistan does not work. The U.S. military contingent has been in this country for eight years and the situation is only worsening," the lawmaker said. "There are many other ways to resolve the conflict in Afghanistan, but it is impossible to force Afghanistan at gunpoint to live in line with Western standards," he added. The vote to close the base comes as U.S. President Barack Obama announced he would send an additional 17,000 soldiers to Afghanistan to fight Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters. The move will increase the U.S. contingent to more than 50,000 personnel. Russia, which has an airbase in Kant, a short distance from the Manas base, recently said it was ready to broaden cooperation with Washington on non-military supplies to Afghanistan via the so called "northern corridor," which is likely to cross Russia into Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan before entering northern Afghanistan. The base closure bill is still to be signed by the president. Once Bakiyev does this, the Kyrgyz government will notify the United States, giving it 180 days to withdraw some 1,200 personnel, aircraft and other equipment. There is as yet no information on when Bakiyev will sign the bill into law.

Meanwhile, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates hinted at an informal meeting of NATO defense ministers on Thursday that Washington could pay more rent for the base.

However, he said the United States would not squander taxpayers' money simply to keep the base intact and that it could seek sites for an alternative airbase.

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