Kyrgyzstan's president-elect said Tuesday the U.S. air base needs to close by 2014 because its presence on Kyrgyz soil 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. to lease the Manas base through mid-2014.
The United States has used Manas, located 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 frequent 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.
Manas remains the only U.S. military outpost in the volatile region after the U.S. was evicted in 2005 from a base in authoritarian Uzbekistan over Washington's criticism of a brutal crackdown on protesters by Uzbek forces.
Manas was a key transit point for American troops and military supplies, especially during the troop buildup in Afghanistan, but that can be expected to diminish as the U.S. and its NATO allies wind down their combat role. The Afghan government is scheduled to take the lead role throughout the country by the end of 2014, although the U.S. intends to maintain a diplomatic and possibly a troop-training presence for many more years.
Atambayev and other Kyrgyz officials have made similar warnings in the past, saying that the U.S. base must close by 2014.
Pentagon press secretary George Little declined to comment on the expected impact of Atambayev's statement, except to say it would be reviewed. 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 U.S. base has 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 amid fears that it could stoke up interregional tensions, but the vote proceeded largely without disturbances.
By garnering more than 50 percent of the ballot, Atambayev, a northerner, avoided a runoff that would have pitted him against one of his two rivals from the south _ Adakhan Madumarov and Kamchibek Tashiyev.
"I was very worried because there was a lot of talk about regional division in Kyrgyzstan, so it is good that the elections have passed, thank God," Atambayev said, speaking at his first news conference after the vote.
Sporadic protests against the election results, ostensibly organized by Tashiyev and Madumarov supporters, broke out Monday in southern Kyrgyzstan, but it is not yet clear if they will gain any momentum. New unrest would cause profound anxiety in a country still reeling from the political and ethnic violence of recent years.
Southern Kyrgyzstan, a major transit area for Afghan heroin, was devastated last summer by deadly ethnic clashes that killed almost 500 people, mainly ethnic Uzbeks.
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, setting the stage for the first peaceful transition of power in the country's turbulent post-independence history.
Atambayev, 55, who stepped down as prime minister in September to campaign, will face the challenge of steering the country out of instability and economic hardship.
He first to rose to prominence in the early 1990s when he set up a printing house that published Russian translations of Mario Puzo's "Godfather" series, as well as more controversial fare like Anthony Burgesses' "Clockwork Orange" and the works of Marquis de Sade. He served briefly as prime minister under Bakiyev and unsuccessfully challenged him in a 2009 presidential vote condemned as tainted by international observers.