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Russian hand in Kyrgyz move would be worry-NATO

BRUSSELS, Feb 4 (Reuters) - NATO said on Wednesday it would be a worry if Russia were found to have had a role in Kyrgyzstan’s decision to close a U.S. military air base which supplies U.S.-led troops fighting in Afghanistan.

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev said that the Manas base would be shut after he secured Russian aid at talks on Tuesday in Moscow, a traditional ally of the former Soviet state.

“If it were to be the case that a Kyrgyz decision to withdraw U.S. access to Manas was as a result of Russian engagement that would be of concern,” NATO spokesman James Appathurai told a news briefing.

Moscow has denied a connection between a $2 billion package to combat an economic crisis -- the equivalent of about half of Kyrgyzstan’s gross domestic product -- and Bishkek’s decision.

Appathurai said any Russian interference would be out of line with Russia’s repeated statements that it supports the international effort in Afghanistan and its position as a U.N. Security Council member that approved the mandate.

His comments came just before NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov were due at a Feb. 6-8 conference to resume political contacts frozen by NATO after Russia’s intervention in Georgia last year.

Appathurai said De Hoop Scheffer would express the alliance’s concern about reported plans by Russia to establish permanent military bases in breakaway parts of Georgia, a former Soviet state that has been promised eventual NATO membership.

Appathurai said that while not a NATO facility the Manas base was used by some NATO allies operating in Afghanistan apart from the United States and had “a valued role for those allies”.

He said NATO was keen to establish and maintain alternative supply routes into Afghanistan to the main route via Pakistan, which he said currently carried 80 percent of supplies.

However, he said: “This should not be perceived as a dependence on Russia.”

Analysts said Kyrgyzstan’s move and attacks on the Pakistan supply route were an early sign of the problems the administration of President Barack Obama faced in Afghanistan as it prepares to boost troops numbers in the country.

“If the United States is going to put an extra 30,000 troops in Afghanistan -- and they are required -- then it will need to have secure supply lines into the country,” said Bob Jackson of the London-based Chatham House think tank. (Editing by Jon Boyle)

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