BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan - Kyrgyzstan's interim leader told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview Tuesday that her government will extend for a year the lease of a U.S. air base key to the war in Afghanistan, and guarantee the deposed president's safety if he steps down and leave the country.
The ousted ruler said he was willing to step down but he also wants immunity for his family and close circle as a condition to resign - an argument that could block a deal to transfer power and foment the turmoil gripping the Central Asian nation.
Roza Otunbayeva, the interim leader, told the AP that the agreement allowing the U.S. to use the Manas air base will be prolonged after the current one-year deal expires in July.
"It will be automatically extended for the next year," she said.
The U.S. base, at the capital's international airport, provides refueling flights for warplanes over Afghanistan and serves as a major transit hub for troops.
In the interview, Otunbayeva said her government is offering security guarantees for deposed President Kurmanbek Bakiyev if he steps down and leaves the country, but she wouldn't offer such immunity to his family.
"We will provide security guarantees which he's entitled to under the constitution," she said.
Bakiyev fled the capital, Bishkek, on Wednesday after a rally against corruption, rising utility bills and deteriorating human rights exploded into police gunfire and chaos that left at least 83 people dead and sparked protesters to storm the government headquarters.
He told reporters in his home village in the south that he would resign and relinquish his claim on power if the interim authorities guarantee "my own security and the security of members of my family and those close to me."
Both the United States and Russia, which also has a military base in Kyrgyzstan, have watched the violence in the impoverished ex-Soviet Central Asian nation with concern.
A spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, which is in charge of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, said troop transports to and from Afghanistan were suspended last week at the Manas air base. Refueling flights have continued.
Major John Redfield told The Associated Press that flights resumed briefly Friday and a few hundred troops were flown back to the U.S. on Monday after being stuck at Manas by the shutdown. Other than that, flights to and from Afghanistan remain indefinitely suspended.
Russia has watched the U.S. military presence in what it considers its backyard with unease, and it had pushed Bakiyev's government to evict the U.S. military.
But after announcing last year that American forces would have to leave the Manas base, Kyrgyzstan agreed to allow them to stay after the U.S. raised the annual rent to about $63 million from $17 million.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was the first foreign leader to call Otunbayeva last week after her appointment as the interim leader and offer help, prompting speculation that Moscow was jockeying for greater clout in Kyrgyzstan at the U.S. expense.
Otunbayeva said Tuesday that she expects the U.S. to wrap up its campaign in Afghanistan, which would remove the rationale for the U.S. base, but added that "it's not an issue yet."
She said that her government would look at the contracts for supplying fuel to the U.S. base, but wouldn't immediately say that they would seek their revision. The opposition has alleged that Bakiyev's entourage has profited from those contracts.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke with Otunbayeva over the weekend, to offer humanitarian aid and discuss the importance of the U.S. air base. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake is to travel to Kyrgyzstan on Wednesday for talks including the base status.
Otunbayeva told the AP that her government expects to continue receiving about $47 million a year in U.S. financial assistance, adding that foreign aid is vital for shoring up democracy in the impoverished nation. She said that her government also expects Russia to provide some urgent aid.
Kyrgyzstan has remained on edge, and the interim government has issued threats that it will launch a special operation to seize Bakiyev - a move that the ousted leader has repeatedly insisted would end in bloodshed.
Bakiyev signaled his readiness to resign hours after rallying with about 5,000 supporters in an apparent test of how much support he could muster to resist the opposition authorities. The crowd that greeted Bakiyev was highly emotional, but there have been doubts about how much real backing he has and whether he commanded enough loyalty in the security forces to mount serious resistance.
In the minutes before Bakiyev addressed reporters Tuesday afternoon at his family compound in Teyit, a short drive from Jalal-Abad, around 20 machine gun-toting guards in camouflage uniforms emerged into the courtyard in an apparent gesture to demonstrate their readiness to thwart any attempt by security forces to launch a raid on the house.
Bakiyev says he is eager to hold negotiations to bring an end to the political crisis, but that he wouldn't go to the capital to hold them. The interim government "cannot secure the safety of my passage to Bishkek," he said.
When asked specifically Tuesday if the new authorities are willing to extend guarantees to Bakiyev's brother and son, the security chief in the interim government, Keneshbek Duishebayev, declined comment. Those men are among the Bakiyev relatives most often accused of reaping massive wealth through improper channels; complaints about corruption were a prime issue in the events that drove Bakiyev out of the capital.
Otunbayeva indicated that her government's patience with Bakiyev is running out.
"His stay in Kyrgyzstan is posing a problem for the nation's future," she told the AP. "It's becoming increasingly difficult to guarantee his security as people are demanding to bring him to justice."
Asked where Bakiyev might go, she said she didn't know but then added that Bakiyev would probably like to join his sons, who are currently in Latvia.