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UPDATE 5-Kyrgyz parliament to vote on U.S. base next week
(Adds prime minister quotes, details, Prikhodko)
By Olga Dzyubenko
BISHKEK Feb 5 (Reuters) - Kyrgyzstan's parliament will vote next week on whether to shut a U.S. air base, an important staging post for U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan, Kyrgyz officials said on Thursday.
Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced the closure of the Manas base this week after securing financial aid from Russia, Kyrgyzstan's former Soviet master and traditional ally.
Irked by the U.S. military presence in Kyrgyzstan, which it regards as part of its strategic sphere of interest, Russia has been exerting pressure on Bakiyev for years to close Manas down.
Kyrgyzstan's move has set a tough challenge for new U.S. President Barack Obama, who plans to send additional troops to boost NATO efforts to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Kyrgyz Prime Minister Igor Chudinov said Kyrgyzstan sought to shut down the air base because it disagreed with U.S. methods in Afghanistan. He said however that the transit of non-military cargo bound for land-locked Afghanistan would not be affected.
"We are in talks with the U.S. side. We are terminating the air base agreement but we are not refusing to take part in Afghanistan's reconstruction," he told a news conference.
"It is time to start reconstructing its economy more actively. You cannot solve these things by force."
NATO has expressed concern over Russia's possible involvement in the move. Moscow says there is no link between the $2-billion aid package for Kyrgyzstan and Bishkek's decision.
A Western diplomatic source said on Thursday the United States was close to a deal with Kyrgyzstan's neighbour, Uzbekistan, that would allow Washington to open a new supply route for its troops in Afghanistan.
The Kyrgyz government needs parliamentary approval to proceed with the closure of the Manas base, but this is seen as a formality as the chamber is controlled by a pro-presidential party. A simple majority of votes is needed.
Avtandil Arabayev, deputy head of the ruling Ak-Zhol party, said parliament would vote on the decision next week.
Once it has received parliamentary approval, the government would have to send Washington a note ordering it to shut the base. After that the U.S. military would be given 180 days to close operations and leave.
Manas has been used as a staging post by U.S.-led forces fighting Taliban and al Qaeda militants in Afghanistan. The Kyrgyz move comes as Washington seeks to reinforce supply routes that bypass Pakistan, where convoys face security risks.
Russia, while blowing cold on the U.S. military presence in Central Asia, has politically backed the NATO effort in Afghanistan. It says it will be flexible to U.S. requests for supplies to Afghanistan to be allowed to cross Russia.
"Russia has and will continue to extend full support to the coalition forces in Afghanistan in securing an uninterrupted transit of supplies," top Kremlin aide Sergei Prikhodko was quoted as saying by Russia's Itar-Tass news agency.
Officials at the sprawling air base outside the capital Bishkek said Manas continued to operate as usual as a support hub for coalition forces and cargo in Afghanistan.
"Nothing has really changed," said a Manas spokesman. "It's a wait-and-see situation."
The United States, whose total annual assistance to Kyrgyzstan is $150 million, says it has not received any formal communication about closing the base, home to 1,000 personnel.
"We're having discussions with the Kyrgyz about this and we'll continue to do so," a State Department spokesman said.
Kyrgyzstan says it also wants the base closed because of a string of incidents at Manas, such as the 2006 shooting of a Kyrgyz man by a U.S. airman, and general public unease over the presence of U.S. troops in the mainly Muslim nation.
People on the streets of Bishkek, the capital nestled in the foothills of the Tien-Shan mountains, seemed divided over the air base.
"I think they (Americans) should go. They don't like Muslims, and I don't like what they are doing in Afghanistan," said Nurbek Katykeyev, a 19-year-old student.
Others disagreed. "We should keep the base," said Amanekhen Shuriyev, another student. "They are paying us money and also I don't want terrorists to operate here." (Writing by Maria Golovnina; additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov in Moscow; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)
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