Russian jet buzzes Panetta, Kyryg Republic base

Russian jet buzzes Panetta, Kyryg Republic base

By Bryan Bender

Globe Staff

MANAS TRANSIT CENTER, Kyryg Republic — Old habits die hard.

As Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta early Wednesday prepared to take off from this remote outpost in Central Asia for a visit to Afghanistan, the deafening sound of a war plane flying low and fast was heard directly overhead.

One of the US fighter planes escorting his Air Force C-17 to the war zone?

Nope.

It was a Russian military jet buzzing the airfield in a Cold War-style flyover to let the American defense chief know that Moscow was watching him – and a stark reminder of the Russian government’s displeasure with the US military presence in its backyard.

"They have never done that before," said a senior defense official traveling with Panetta, who was told of the incident by the air base commander.

The Manas base, located near a Russian air base in the Kyrygyz capital of Bishkek, has served as the primary hub for US military personnel moving in and out of Afghanistan since 2001.

The arrangement with the Kyrygyz government has not been without its problems, including a threat in 2009 to end American access after Russia exerted pressure on the former Soviet republic.

The impasse was overcome with a US agreement to increase its annual payment for use of the facility from $17 million to $60 million, as well as a pledge to vacate the premises by July 2014.

Panetta met with Kyrygyz officials on Tuesday to thank them for their hospitality. But his aides said he also hopes they can eventually be convinced to extend the American stay – at least until the end of 2014 when all US forces are scheduled to be withdrawn from Afghanistan.

From the looks of it, Moscow will have something to say about that.

Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeBender

© Copyright 2012 Globe Newspaper Company.

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