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Dispute could affect Fairchild crews

Kyrgyzstan president threatening to bar U.S. from base that’s home to tankers, personnel

 (Kimberly Lusk / The Spokesman-Review)
(Kimberly Lusk / The Spokesman-Review)

Ripples from a growing dispute involving the United States, Russia and a Central Asian country could reach the Spokane area.

Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic that has been home to U.S. Air Force aerial tankers for more than seven years, is threatening to close the Manas Air Base to Americans and other Western military units.

Among those affected would be air and ground crews from Fairchild Air Force Base, which have operated out of Manas since the United States launched its attacks on the Taliban in nearby Afghanistan. Fairchild personnel helped set up the military operation at the airfield, arriving when it was little more than a runway with tents nearby.

Crews from the West Plains Air Force base are such a fixture at Manas that in 2006 they held their own version of Bloomsday, establishing a 12-kilometer race at the installation outside the Kyrgyzstan capital of Bishkek.

First Lt. Noel Bacnis, a Fairchild spokeswoman, said Wednesday that Fairchild crews routinely rotate in and out of Manas on tours lasting about 60 days.

About 60 men and women, along with an undisclosed number of its KC-135 tankers – “more than several, not more than 12,” Bacnis said – are on temporary duty there.

Those assignments would end if Kyrgyzstan President Kurmanbek Bakiyev follows through on a threat made Tuesday to close Manas to U.S. forces and their NATO allies resupplying troops in Afghanistan and refueling the aircraft over that neighboring country.

Bakiyev was in Moscow, where he had just received promises from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev for about $2 billion in loans and hundreds of millions more in grants and debt forgiveness.

Bakiyev said on Russian television that the decision was made in recent days, the Washington Post reported Wednesday, and was prompted by a refusal by the U.S. to raise its payments for using the base and by growing public hostility over American military presence in the country.

One point of contention between the U.S. military and the Kyrgyz government involves an incident in 2006 in which a local truck driver was fatally shot by an American soldier during a security check. Kyrgyzstan wants to prosecute the soldier in its courts, but the Pentagon has refused.

Pentagon officials told the Post they hadn’t heard from the Kyrgyz government about any official plans to close Manas, which was set up in late 2001.

In a 2002 story in The Spokesman-Review, 2nd Lt. Sarah McCoy described being sent on a highly classified deployment the previous December and being told where she was going just before boarding a plane.

She recalled phoning her family and telling them, “We’re going to Kyrgyzstan. Look it up on a map.”

The mountainous country is north of Afghanistan, west of China and south of Kazakhstan.

In a separate interview for that story, Master Sgt. Dave Walker recalled arriving at Manas in early 2002 and helping transform it from a muddy field near the Bishkek airport into a fully operational military base.

“Every single day you experienced something that makes you say, ‘I can’t believe I’m here,’ ” Walker said at the time.

In 2006, about 60 men and women stationed at Manas participated in a sanctioned version of Bloomsday, which race founder Don Kardong said was a way to “give them a little bit of home.” Those who finished got Bloomsday T-shirts, normally reserved for runners on the Spokane course.

Later that year, a Fairchild-based tanker caught fire after it collided with a Kyrgyz commercial airliner. The three-member crew had to evacuate the KC-135, and the fire was put out. The U.S. Air Force delayed disclosing that the fire was caused by the collision with the commercial jet for a day at the request of the Kyrgyz government.

No one was injured in the collision, but both planes were damaged.

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