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Dual investigations probe Manas fuel sales

As Kurmanbek Bakiyev flees Kyrgyzstan, provisional government examines his holdings, while U.S. investigates Manas suppliers.

U.S. servicemen board a plane bound for Afghanistan at Manas Air Base near Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek on Feb. 13, 2009. (Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters)

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — As deposed President Kurmanbek Bakiyev fled the country, both the U.S. and Kyrgyzstan's provisional government are investigating the sale of fuel to the crucial Manas air base outside of Bishkek. Among the questions: Were members of Bakiyev’s family involved in the fuel trade, and did the U.S. pay an inflated price? 

The questions are crucial, since outrage over the Bakiyevs’ alleged participation in the fuel trade is stoking sentiments among the population to close Manas altogether — at a moment when the base provides an increasingly critical supply hub for the U.S.-led escalation of the war in neighboring Afghanistan.  

Today the ousted Kyrgyz leader flew from Kyrgyzstan to neighboring Kazakhstan, capping a turbulent day in which gunfire erupted while Bakiyev was attending a rally in the southern city Osh. Last week, Bakiyev fled to the south, his powerbase, after blood-soaked clashes between demonstrators and security forces left at least 84 dead. 

Agency reports said that Bakiyev’s security detail fired into the air at the Osh rally when the gathering was challenged by about a thousand anti-Bakiyev demonstrators. Bakiyev left for Kazakhstan to continue talks to resolve the crisis. 

The president’s departure will not halt investigations on either side of the globe, however. Today Temir Sariev, finance minister in the provisional government that replaced Bakiyev, said that he is compiling a list of the Bakiyev family’s holdings. In the United States, a congressional subcommittee is trying to determine if the U.S. government willingly turned a blind eye to allegations of corruption surrounding the procurement and sale of fuel at the Kyrgyz air base. 

“It has been alleged to not have been a fair market price for the fuel,” said Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.), chairman of the national security and foreign affairs subcommittee, part of Congress’ committee on oversight and government reform. “It's part of the investigation. We're looking into that.” 

Tierney added that the committee’s investigations have indicated so far that fuel is dramatically less expensive just a half-hour drive away from the base. He could not provide any further details however. 

Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake, who is visiting Bishkek, said "the U.S. is committed to full transparency in regard to contracts. If there were irregularities, we are prepared to review and possibly rebid the contracts."

One of the main points contributing to the base’s unpopularity is the widely-held (but so far unproven) perception here — fortified by accusations from the provisional government — that U.S. officials permitted Maksim Bakiyev, the president’s son, to reap millions from the fuel trade at the base.

Although the Bakiyevs' involvement would not necessarily break any U.S. or Kyrgyz laws, their participation could potentially cause lasting damage to America’s reputation in the region, given that Washington appears open to the accusation of cozying up to a corrupt regime.