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Russia to expand Kyrgyzstan military base: official

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BISHKEK (AFP): Russia will expand its airbase in Kyrgyzstan at the end of the year ahead of the shutdown of a US base in the country, a senior commander said on Saturday.

The number of planes at Russia's Kant airbase in the country "will at least double by this December," Viktor Sevastyanov, a senior Russian air force commander, said at a ceremony marking the base's 10-year anniversary.

Russia will also send in more pilots, he said in televised remarks.

The Kant airbase last year was a source of disagreement between Kyrgyzstan and Russia, which is competing for influence in the region with the United States, whose lease at its Manas base expires in July.

Last year Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev complained that the Russian base was not benefitting Kyrgyzstan and instead owed Bishkek USD 15 million (11 million euros) in back rent.

However in September Russia and Kyrgyzstan signed an agreement allowing Moscow to continue operations at Kant until 2032 in exchange for Moscow's writing off nearly half a billion dollars in debt owed by the Central Asian country.

The base, located about 20 kilometres (12 miles) from Bishkek, currently has 10 Sukhoi fighters, two Mi-8 helicopters, and about a dozen other transport and training airplanes. It is Russia's only airbase in Central Asia.

The United States is meanwhile planning to pull its flight operations from the Manas base ahead of the expiration of its lease, and use an alternative airbase in Romania as a transit point for troops leaving Afghanistan.

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