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Clinton: Kyrgyzstan Decision to End US Access to Airbase 'Regrettable'

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says an announced decision by Kyrgyzstan to end U.S. access to an airbase serving NATO troops in Afghanistan is regrettable, but not a major setback for the Obama administration. Clinton discussed the Afghan conflict Thursday with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.

The Manas airbase in Kyrgyzstan is a key stopover for U.S. cargo planes re-supplying troops in Afghanistan. The decision announced in Moscow earlier this week by Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev to end American access to the base comes at an inopportune time for the new administration, which is considering a big increase in the U.S. Afghan troop presence.

But at a joint news conference with French Foreign Minister Kouchner dominated by the Afghan issue, Secretary Clinton said there are alternatives to using the Manas base, and its closure would not affect administration decision-making.

"With respect to the base, the Defense Department is conducting an examination as to how else we would proceed but it will not effect whatever decisions we make. It's regrettable that this is under consideration by the government of Kyrgyzstan, and we hope to have further discussions with them," she said. "But we will proceed in a very effective manner no matter what the outcome of the Kyrgyzstan government's deliberations might be."

Despite the Moscow announcement by President Bakiyev, officials here say no base-closing decision has been officially conveyed to the United States and that discussions on the issue continue, with Secretary Clinton very engaged personally.

Kyrgyzstan also threatened to end U.S. access to the base in 2005 but a new agreement, providing for an increased payment to the Central Asian state, was concluded a year later.

A senior State Department official noted that Mr. Bakiyev spoke after a stated commitment by Russia to provide his government with two billion dollars in aid and loans, but he said administration officials doubt Moscow can actually deliver on aid of that magnitude.

Administration officials have otherwise avoided criticizing or blaming Moscow for the base issue. Secretary Clinton said Thursday the Obama administration intends to forge a more constructive relationship with Moscow and wants Russia as a cooperative partner.

A Pentagon spokesman said it makes no sense for Russia or any other country to try to undermine efforts to bring stability to Central Asia.

News reports quote U.S. officials as saying the administration is considering renewing military cooperation with Kyrgystan's politically-hardline neighbor Uzbekistan if access to the Manas base is denied, but Secretary Clinton declined comment on the matter.

For his part, Foreign Minister Kouchner said France, which has about 3,000 troops in Afghanistan,is determined to continue its role there. But, he said the ultimate solution to the conflict is to empower a democratic government in Kabul that can control the entire country.

"The key word on Afghanistan is what I call 'Afghanization.' That means we must give the people in Afghanistan control of their own destiny," he said. "We need to make it known to the Afghan people that they are in control of their own progress and their own future."

The French foreign minister , a doctor and co-founder of the aid group Doctors Without Borders who worked on medical projects in Afghanistan, is due to meet in Germany late Friday with the new U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke.

The U.S. envoy is attending an international security conference in Munich and is to begin his first trip to the region early next week with stops in Islamabad, Kabul and New Delhi.