March 13 (Bloomberg) -- Defense Secretary Leon Panetta found officials in Kyrgyzstan open to extending use of an air base the U.S. needs to complete operations in Afghanistan, a U.S. defense official said, in a prelude to negotiations on what may be a costly accord.
Kyrgyz Defense Minister Taalaybek Omuraliev and Secretary of the Defense Council Busurmankul Tabaldiev indicated to Panetta that they are open to cooperation on issues including the future use of Manas air base outside the capital Bishkek, official said today on condition of anonymity to discuss private talks.
The current base-use agreement expires in July 2014. American personnel go through Manas to and from Afghanistan, where the U.S. plans to have troops in place at least through the end of 2014. The base is also used for refueling aircraft.
“I want to thank them for their cooperation and ensure that that relationship can continue into the future as well,” Panetta told reporters traveling with him before his meeting.
The last time the two nations negotiated an agreement, the rental fee the U.S. pays to Kyrgyzstan rose to $60 million a year from $17.4 million after the Kyrgyz president at the time ordered the Americans out in early 2009.
President Almazbek Atambayev told a U.S. State Department delegation last month that there should be no foreign military presence at Manas after the summer of 2014, Kabar news agency reported. The base hosted about 580,000 passengers and almost 4,800 refueling sorties last year.
Echoing that stance, Tabaldiev told Panetta at the start of their meeting today, before media were ushered out of the room, that “there should be no military mission” at the base after 2014. He said it was a civilian, commercial enterprise.
Pakistan Shuts Crossings
No negotiations are taking place currently, a second U.S. defense official traveling with Panetta told reporters before his meetings.
Pakistan’s November decision to shut border crossings for supplies into southern Afghanistan after an aerial attack that killed 24 of its soldiers has heightened the importance of Kyrgyzstan, the only nation that hosts both U.S. and Russian military bases.
The U.S. is using almost all of its alternative routes to full capacity, the second defense official said.
The second-most frequently used of the three northern ground supply routes the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan uses runs through Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. The primary passage from the north goes through Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. A third route runs through the Caucasus.
Panetta is also seeking to reassure Central Asian neighbors about the stability of Afghanistan because several have expressed concern that the country will remain volatile after 2014, the second defense official said.
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