BISHKEK, July 25: US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on Monday Washington would keep military bases in Central Asia, while officials moved to dispel fears it wants permanent facilities in the region.
The Pentagon operates air bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan it deems ‘vital’ for delivering supplies to Afghanistan, but continuing access has become uncertain amid Russian and Chinese pressure that it withdraw.
“We feel we’ve had a good arrangement and good relationships in a number of those countries in the region. They’ve worked well for us,” said Rumsfeld, who arrived in Kyrgyzstan on his second visit to the ex-Soviet state in three months.
“Obviously, from time to time, things may be adjusted one way or another. But we don’t have any announcements to make,” said Rumsfeld, who will meet Kyrgyzstan’s newly elected president on Tuesday to discuss the base’s future.
Rumsfeld did not back off remarks made on July 14 by General Richard Myers, the top US military officer, that Russia and China were ‘trying to bully’ Central Asian nations into demanding a timetable for a US troop withdrawal.
“I think each country in the region, however, will make up their own minds as to what their relationships with others will be,” Rumsfeld told reporters travelling with him.
The United States has used Central Asia as a stepping stone to Afghanistan since it toppled the Taliban government there for sheltering Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on US targets.
Russia views the five former Soviet states in Central Asia as its backyard, and neighbour China has also become more vocal.
“We’ve said all along we have no intention of permanent US bases in the region,” said a senior US defence official travelling with Rumsfeld, declining to say when operations in Afghanistan would no longer require the bases.
The Pentagon has 1,000 troops and nine cargo and refuelling planes at Ganci air base at Kyrgyzstan’s main civilian airport outside the capital Bishkek. Russia uses an air base northwest of Bishkek, making Kyrgyzstan the only country hosting both US and Russian bases.
Kyrgyzstan’s newly elected President Kurmanbek Bakiyev this month questioned the continued US presence, and Uzbekistan imposed restrictions on US flights following Washington’s criticism of a bloody government crackdown on demonstrators in the eastern town of Andizhan.—Reuters