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No plans to expand military presence in Central Asia - NATO

RIA Novosti

23/05/2007 13:45 DUSHANBE, May 23 (RIA Novosti) - The North Atlantic alliance is not planning to expand its military contingent in Central Asia, a senior NATO official said Wednesday.

Robert Simmons, NATO's special envoy to Central Asia, who is currently on a working visit to Tajikistan, said after a meeting with Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon, that the alliance was not worried about the presence of a Russian military base next to its base near the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, or about plans to form a peacekeeping contingent under the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

He said NATO welcomed any form of partnership, especially when it came to increased efforts in the fight against terrorism. Tajikistan, the region's poorest nation, provides NATO planes with refueling and emergency landing rights in conjunction with Afghanistan missions.

The United States established a military presence in the region in 2001 using an airbase in Kyrgyzstan as a spearhead for operations in Afghanistan, which U.S.-led coalition forces invaded to topple Taliban rulers who had direct links with the infamous al-Qaeda terrorist organization.

The U.S. Ganci airbase, or Manas base, located 30 kilometers (17 miles) east of the Kyrgyz capital accommodates 1,000 U.S. troops, along with nine refueling and cargo planes supplying antiterrorism operations in Afghanistan.

Russia has established its own military base in Kyrgyzstan as a counterweight to the U.S. airbase at Manas. The Russian base in Kant, about 20 miles west of the Kyrgyz capital, currently deploys about 500 troops, 20 combat and transport planes and helicopters, as well as L-39 trainers.

In light of the proposed deployment of a U.S. missile shield in Central Europe and the continuing expansion of NATO, Moscow has become increasingly concerned by the U.S. and NATO military presence close to its borders in the Central Asian region, which has historically been in Russia's sphere of influence.

The Kremlin has applied considerable pressure on Kyrgyzstan to demand that the U.S. withdraw its base after the completion of its mission in Afghanistan.

But the poor nation of five million people needs strong U.S. support and the U.S. military base, which spends $150 million annually in rental fees under a new agreement, has generated jobs and is a strong contributor to the Kyrgyz economy.

On Wednesday, the Kyrgyz government reaffirmed its commitment to allow the U.S. to maintain its base at Manas airport.

"The presence of a U.S. airbase in Kyrgyzstan meets the national interests of the republic," a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry said after a closed government meeting.

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