Page last updated at 20:10 GMT, Friday, 6 February 2009

Inside US air base in Manas

US air base in Kyrgyzstan, file image

By Daniel Fisher
BBC News, Manas air base

On Friday, BBC journalists were the first to get inside Manas - the last remaining US air base in Central Asia, after Kyrgyzstan announced earlier this week it was closing the base.

Manas is vital to US operations: it is both the gateway to Afghanistan for troops in the US and coalition forces, and where all the in-flight re-fuelling aircraft are based for supporting fighters in the air.

Thousands of troops including the British pass through the base every day to and from the war zone.

Russia, though, has spends billions of dollars to entice Kyrgyzstan back into her arms.

In return for the money the Manas airbase, set up in 2001 as part of the global war on terror, is all but certain to close now despite US assertions that it is continuing to negotiate.

However, officials in Bishkek deny that the plan to shut the base is linked to the big aid package from Moscow.

'Airborne petrol station'

Inside the perimeter fence laced with razor wire and checkpoints is a square mile of US influence projecting itself across Central Asia.

A US military plane at Manas
The Americans share the airport at Manas with the civilian fleet of Kyrgyzstan

The base is home to a collection of support planes that transport troops and supplies in the bat-like C-17, while KC-135s are used for re-fuelling fighter jets patrolling the skies of Afghanistan. Finally, the Hercules transport plane is also here.

They share an airport with the civilian fleet of Kyrgyzstan.

The detritus of the old Russian air base here lies all around and ancient aircraft lie abandoned just yards away from the US, French and Spanish fleet.

The latter are not that new either. The newest KC-135, effectively an airborne petrol station that allows British and US pilots to patrol for long periods, was made in 1964. This means that maintenance is round the clock.

Outside in the freezing cold, we saw mechanics taking apart the engine of one of the planes.

Engines like those nearly blew us off the runway earlier as the aircraft taxied past us on its way to the Manas runway.

'Too friendly'

It is not only fuel that goes in and out of here.

In a hangar just round the corner we saw US airmen being kitted out. They arrive here from across the Atlantic and within 30-40 hours they are equipped and sent on.

Her voice echoing off the walls, a young woman barked out orders telling the troops what to take from the large wooden crates and shelves inside.

Piled high are chemical suits, helmets and body armour. All the sizes were available but the only colour scheme on display was sandy.

The Americans are friendly, almost too friendly. Although they told us again and again that they were not authorised to talk about the base's future, there was a distinct sense that their infernally upbeat message was really only for our benefit.

You cannot help feeling they want you to like them when they get soldiers to bring you coffee on a taxiway.

Map showing existing/possible supply routes
1. Manas airbase: the only US base in Central Asia, a vital transit point for Nato and US operations. Kyrgyz government wants it closed.

2. Karshi-Khanabad airbase: US forces were ordered out in 2005. Uzbekistan may agree to allow it to be used for non-military transports.
3. Bridge over Panj river: part-funded by the US, it was completed in 2007. May serve as another supply route into Afghanistan.
4. Khyber Pass: most supplies to US and Nato troops come through Pakistan. Increasing number of attacks in the area mean the US army is looking for back-up routes.

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