(Corrects typo in headline)
By Zeeshan Haider
ISLAMABAD, Jan 20 (Reuters) - A U.S. air base in Kyrgystan used as a key staging post for its operations in Afghanistan, should stay open, the U.S. regional military chief General David Petraeus said on Tuesday.
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.
Petraeus told reporters in Pakistan 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.
“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,” he said in Islamabad.
In Bishkek, the U.S. Central Command chief 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.
Petraeus, who also visited Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan last week, said he discussed the possibility of strengthening supplies for Western forces in land-locked Afghanistan from the the Central Asian states.
The United States plans to build up Afghan forces, 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.
The U.S. general said supplies had generally been getting through the Khyber Pass, except for a couple of interruptions.
However, he said, the United States was seeking additional routes for its forces through northern Afghanistan.
“This is very important, as we increase the effort in Afghanistan, that we have multiple routes that go into the country,” he said.
“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,” he said. (Editing by Robert Birsel and Bill Tarrant)