Kyrgyz election winner says US base poses risk

By PETER LEONARD | November 1, 2011 | 7:00 AM EDT

Almazbek Atambayev speaks to press in Bishkek on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2011. Kyrgyzstan presidential election winner Almazbek Atambayev's moment of glory was soured Monday by a stinging assessment from international vote monitors and news of protests in the turbulent south of the country. (AP Photo/Vladimir voronin)

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan (AP) — Kyrgyzstan's presidential election winner said Tuesday that the U.S. air base needs to close by 2014 because its presence on Kyrgyz soils puts this former Soviet nation at risk of retaliatory strikes from those in conflict with the United States.

Almazbek Atambayev, who won over 60 percent of ballots in Sunday's vote, said Kyrgyzstan will honor a contract allowing the U.S. lease of the base at Manas through mid-2014.

The United States has used Manas, which is situated within the country's main civilian airport, as a key logistical hub for operations in nearby Afghanistan since 2001

"We know that the United States is often engaged in conflict. First in Iraq, then in Afghanistan, and now relations are tense with Iran," he said. "I would not want for one of these countries to launch a retaliatory strike on the military base."

The base is subject of frequently extravagant rumors among local residents and politicians, who maintain that fuel dumps by U.S. planes devastate crops and cause illnesses. U.S. military officials have always strenuously denied such claims and say they make every effort to minimize their impact on the area surrounding the base.

Atambayev and other Kyrgyz officials have made similar statements in the past, warning that the U.S. base must close by 2014.

Asked to comment on Atambayev's statement, the base spokesman, U.S. Air Force Maj. Bob Everdeen said that beyond the current term of the lease agreement "we wouldn't speculate on the future."

The presence of the base has also vexed Moscow, which views Kyrgyzstan as part of its traditional sphere of influence.

Russia also has a military base in the Central Asian nation on China's mountainous western fringes. Atambayev, whose recent overtures to Moscow indicate he will pursue an explicitly pro-Russian line, did not say anything about that base.

Kyrgyzstan's economic fortunes are inextricably linked with Russia, where around 500,000 Kyrgyz migrant workers reside, and Atambayev has worked hard to deepen those ties.

The country was on a state of high alert ahead of the elections, but the vote proceeded largely without disturbances.

By garnering more than 50 percent of the vote, Atambayev avoided having a runoff with a challenger from the south that observers feared could ignite interregional tensions in the country.

Sporadic protests against the election results broke out in southern Kyrgyzstan Monday, but it is not yet clear if they will gain any momentum. The specter of a new unrest would cause profound anxiety in a country still reeling from the political and ethnic violence of recent years.

Outgoing President Roza Otunbayeva, who has been running the country since April 2010, when former authoritarian leader Kurmanbek Bakiyev was overthrown in a popular uprising, will step down for 55-year old Atambayev, setting the stage for the first peaceful transition of power in the country's turbulent post-independence history.