Fairchild AFB crews to leave Kyrgyzstan

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SPOKANE — The Defense Department said it will pull its personnel from a base in Kyrgyzstan, where crews from Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane have flown thousands of combat refueling missions over Afghanistan.

The agency said Monday it will vacate Manas Transit Center by July rather than negotiate a lease extension. The move follows a vote by Kyrgyzstan's parliament to end the lease when the current term expires next summer.

The center serves as a base for aerial refueling missions and as a northern air supply route into Afghanistan for troops and equipment, The Spokesman-Review reported.

Refueling operations will be moved to an unspecified base in southwest Asia, said Cmdr. Elissa Smith, a Defense Department spokeswoman.

It wasn't immediately clear what impact the decision could have on Fairchild Air Force Base operations. A base spokesman referred questions to Air Force Central Command.

Over the past decade, Kyrgyzstan has been the most common overseas deployment for Fairchild crews, including members of the 141st Washington Air National Guard unit that share KC-135 Stratotankers with the 92nd Air Refueling Wing.

The U.S. military base in Afghanistan, located alongside a commercial airport outside the capital city of Bishkek, has been a politically divisive issue in Kyrgyzstan, pitting pro-democracy reformers against pro-Moscow hard-liners.

The parliament sent the United States an eviction notice in 2009 but relented when the Pentagon agreed to more than triple the annual lease rate to $60 million through July 2014, plus spend $31 million on airport runway and tarmac improvements.

Earlier this year, three Fairchild crew members died when their KC-135 exploded above a rugged mountain range about 100 miles west of the base. The cause remains under investigation, but authorities have said the tanker was flying into a lightning storm.