UPDATE 1-Petraeus says new routes agreed for Afghan supplies

Tue Jan 20, 2009 8:34pm IST

(Recasts, adds background)

By Zeeshan Haider

ISLAMABAD Jan 20 (Reuters) - U.S. regional military chief General David Petraeus said on Tuesday agreements had been reached for new transport routes into northern Afghanistan through Central Asia.

Those routes would supplement shipments through Pakistan where Taliban militants have been attacking trucks carrying goods to Western forces in land-locked Afghanistan.

Petraeus, on a visit to Pakistan, also said a U.S. air base in Kyrgystan used as a staging post for its operations in Afghanistan, should stay open.

"There have been agreements reached and there are transit lines now and transit agreements for commercial goods and services in particular, that includes several of the countries in Central Asia and Russia," Petraeus told reporters.

The U.S. Central Command chief visited Kyrgystan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan in recent days where he said he discussed the possibility of increasing supplies for Western forces in Afghanistan.

He did not give details but said the new routes into Afghanistan were important in view of a build-up of U.S. forces there this year.

"This is very important, as we increase the effort in Afghanistan, that we have multiple routes that go into the country," he said.

The United States plans to build up its Afghan force, perhaps doubling it to 60,000 soldiers this year, but its main supply route through the Khyber Pass in Pakistan's northwest has become increasingly vulnerable to attacks by Taliban militants.

There are two border-crossing points for goods shipped to the Pakistani port of Karachi and trucked into Afghanistan -- one through the town of Chaman into Afghanistan's Kandahar province and the other to the northeast, through the Khyber Pass.

The Taliban have repeatedly attacked trucks and staging areas on the Khyber route and Pakistan itself has closed it twice in recent months due to government operations against the Islamists.

But Petraeus said supplies had generally been getting through Khyber, except for a couple of interruptions.

KYRGYSTAN BASE

Petraeus said he had had "important" meetings with the prime minister and defence minister of Kyrgystan on the issue of the base in Manas during a visit to Bishkek on Monday.

A source close to Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev's office told Reuters last week that the Central Asian state was preparing a statement announcing the closure of the base.

"It was noted that it is again in everyone's interest that we should all support the Kyrgyz government and that in fact the partnership, that includes Manas, should continue and be strengthened," Petraeus said.

In Bishkek, Petraeus said the possibility of closing the base did not figure in his meetings with the Kyrgyz leaders.

Washington set up the base, now home to more than 1,000 military personnel, in ex-Soviet Kyrgyzstan in 2001 after the start of the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan.

Russia, which also operates a military air base in Kyrgyzstan, saw the arrival of U.S. forces as Washington's attempt to squeeze Moscow's influence in the ex-Soviet region.

Russian media have separately reported that Bakiyev would announce the closure of the U.S. base ahead of his planned visit to Moscow next month. The Kyrgyz government has not officially commented on the matter. (Editing by Robert Birsel and Bill Tarrant)

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