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Russia OKs U.S. Military Transport

Russia announced Friday that it will start allowing non-lethal U.S. military supplies for Afghanistan to cross its territory, a vital link in an alternative route to Pakistani roads threatened by militant attacks.

The top national security official in Kyrgyzstan said, meanwhile, that the country will not reverse the decision to close an important U.S. air base, a move seen as influenced by Russia's irritation with the U.S. military presence in Central Asia.

The overall message ahead of a major weekend security conference in Germany appeared to be that Russia is ready to help the U.S. on Afghanistan, but only on Moscow's terms.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in remarks broadcast by Vesti 24 television that Russia had agreed several days earlier with a U.S. request to allow transit of non-lethal supplies to Afghanistan.

"We are now waiting for the American partners to provide a specific request with a quantity and description of cargo," Lavrov said. "As soon as they do that we will issue relevant permissions."

He and other officials wouldn't say whether the U.S. will be offered air or land transit corridors. But any new transit routes are unlikely to make up for the loss of the Manas air base, home to tanker planes that refuel warplanes flying over Afghanistan. Manas also supports airlifts and medical evacuation operations and houses troops heading into and out of Afghanistan.

Kyrgyzstan's National Security Council chief, Adakhan Madumarov, appeared to dash any U.S. hopes of securing a last-minute reprieve for the base, saying he was sure of winning parliamentary support for the move.

"The fate of the air base has been sealed," he said.

Kyrgyzstan's president announced the closure of Manas on a visit to Moscow Tuesday, just hours after securing more than $2 billion in loans and aid from Russia. U.S. officials said the move came as a result of pressure from Moscow, but Russia and Kyrgyzstan denied that.

Kyrgyzstan has repeatedly complained the United States is paying too little to lease the base. President Kurmanbek Bakiyev's government has faced mounting public anger over crippling electricity shortages, soaring food prices and rampant unemployment, and it desperately needs cash to weather social discontent.

The Kyrgyz parliament delayed a vote on the government's decision to close the Manas base until next week, and some Kyrgyz officials indicated they may discuss the issue with the United States in what could signal their desire to start a bidding war between Washington and Moscow.

But Madumarov said the decision to close the base was final, telling reporters, "There is no doubt the bill to revoke the basing agreement will be ratified."

But even as it seeks to increase its influence in Central Asia - and lessen Washington's - Moscow does not want the chaos in Afghanistan to spread across the region if the U.S. and NATO fail there.

The Kremlin last year signed a framework deal with NATO for transit of non-lethal cargo for coalition forces in Afghanistan and has allowed some alliance members, including Germany, France and Spain to move supplies across its territory.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Igor Lyakin-Frolov said that Germany has been using air and land routes, and France so far only has used air transit.

U.S. ground routes through Russia would likely cross into Kazakhstan and then Uzbekistan before entering northern Afghanistan.

The U.S. has reached a preliminary deal with Kazakhstan to use its territory for transit of supplies to Afghanistan, and is now talking to Uzbekistan. U.S. officials said they are considering resuming military cooperation with authoritarian Uzbekistan as a part of backup planning for the potential loss of Manas.

The closure of the Manas base would pose a serious challenge to President Barack Obama's plan to send up to 30,000 more U.S. forces to fight surging Taliban and al Qaeda violence in Afghanistan. It comes as increasing attacks on transportation depots and truck convoys in Pakistan have raised doubts about its ability to protect vital supply routes. About 75 percent of U.S. supplies to Afghanistan currently travel through Pakistan.

Officials in Kyrgyzstan, which does not border Afghanistan, have not specified when the closure might take place, but the lease agreement says the United States must be given 180 days' notice.

In a separate development, Tajikistan's president pledged Friday that his government would allow the transit of non-military supplies to coalition troops based in neighboring Afghanistan.

Exact arrangements have yet to be worked out, but U.S. military officials are due to visit the country later this month for further discussions, the U.S. embassy in Tajikistan said.

Tajik routes are unlikely to greatly affect U.S. supplies because the mountainous country is hard to traverse by land and it already has allowed U.S. overflights in the past.

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