BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice won fresh promises Tuesday that U.S. forces can remain at a pivotal Central Asian air base that she called a front line in the war on terrorism.
On a trip to Central Asia and Afghanistan, Rice also encouraged further democratic progress for Kyrgyzstan’s fledgling reformist government.
A popular revolt the Bush administration calls the Tulip Revolution, and largely clean elections, brought President Kurmanbek Bakiyev to power in Kyrgyzstan this year and sent his authoritarian predecessor into exile in Russia.
Rice was traveling to Afghanistan today, her second trip there as secretary of state. Two rockets exploded near the U.S. Embassy in the Afghan capital, Kabul, just hours before she was due to arrive. One of the rockets exploded outside the Canadian ambassador’s residence, wounding two guards, police said.
Before leaving the area, Rice may change her itinerary to visit neighboring Pakistan, where tens of thousands died in an earthquake on Saturday.
The Manas air base near the Kyrgyz capital city was Rice’s first stop in the region. The base supplies fuel and other goods to U.S.-led troops fighting the 4-year-old war in Afghanistan.
Rice was trying to firm up U.S. rights to the base. The United States pays about $40 million to $50 million a year for use of the facility.
Tensions over military bases rose over the summer, when the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, dominated by Russia and China, urged the U.S. military to withdraw its bases from both Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. The move was seen as an effort by Russia and China to drive the United States out of the strategically placed, resource-rich region, and Bakiyev initially seemed to go along.
Kyrgyzstan also hosts a Russian base, and the country is still heavily influenced in language, architecture and culture by its years as a Soviet republic. Neither Kyrgyzstan nor its neighbors should have to choose between friendly relations with the United States or friendly relations with Russia or China, Rice said.
Although Bakiyev had made similar promises about the future of the base before, U.S. officials said there were signs of wavering behind the scenes and a move to renegotiate the terms of any long-range U.S. presence.
This time, Rice and Bakiyev signed a brief statement promising open-ended U.S. use of the Manas air base for Afghan operations as well as a U.S. inquiry into whether past payments for use of the facility might have fallen into corrupt hands.