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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Air Force’s Manas operations ending

U.S. Air Force KC-135 tanker planes are lined up at the Manas air base in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, in February 2009. (Associated Press)

The Pentagon is preparing to pull out of Kyrgyzstan, the former Soviet bloc nation where Fairchild-based tanker crews have flown thousands of combat refueling missions over Afghanistan since the start of the war.

The Defense Department said Monday it will vacate Manas Transit Center by July rather than attempt to negotiate a lease extension for continued use of the expeditionary base. The transit center serves as a staging point for aerial refueling missions and as a northern air supply route into nearby Afghanistan for troops and equipment.

The move follows a vote by Kyrgyzstan’s parliament to end the lease when the current term expires next summer.

Refueling operations will be moved to an unspecified base in southwest Asia, while troop and cargo movement will be moved to Romania, said Cmdr. Elissa Smith, a Defense Department spokeswoman.

It isn’t immediately clear what impact it could have on Fairchild Air Force Base operations. A base spokesman said Monday that it was just getting briefed on the Pentagon decision and referred questions to Air Force Central Command.

Fairchild crews have become such a fixture at the Kyrgyzstan base that it features annual Bloomsday runs to coincide with Spokane’s signature spring event, and the Lilac City has its own placard on the mileage marker post containing distances to major cities of the world. Over the past decade, Kyrgyzstan has been the most common overseas deployment for Fairchild crews, including members of the 141st Washington Air National Guard unit that share KC-135 Stratotankers with the 92nd Air Refueling Wing.

Earlier this year, three Fairchild crew members died when their KC-135 exploded above a rugged mountain range about 100 miles west of the base. The cause remains under investigation but authorities have said the tanker was flying into a lightning storm.

The U.S. military base, located alongside the commercial airport outside the capital city of Bishkek, has been a politically divisive issue in Kyrgyzstan, pitting pro-democracy reformers and pro-Moscow hard-liners against each other.

The Kyrgyz parliament sent the United States an eviction notice in 2009, but relented when the Pentagon agreed to more than triple the annual lease rate to $60 million through July 2014, plus spend $31 million on airport runway and tarmac improvements. It also provided more than $100 million in humanitarian aid.

Diplomatic posturing over the base, and Kyrgyzstan in general, also became more widely known as part of the 2010 WikiLeaks scandal.

Among the notable disclosures were embarrassingly candid assessments of the impoverished nation by Britain’s Prince Andrew, and a 2009 meeting between U.S. and Chinese diplomats over reports that China had offered Kyrgyzstan a $2 billion aid package if it were to close the tanker base.