Neighboring Uzbekistan last week also placed in doubt the future of the US base on its territory - a strategic reverse for the United States which established a military foothold in this energy-rich region neighboring Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

"Afghanistan has had presidential and parliamentary elections. The situation there has stabilised. So now we may begin discussing the necessity of US military forces' presence," Kurmanbek Bakiyev said on Monday. "When and how it will happen, time will show."

His comments echoed a call last week by a regional security body led by China and Russia that includes four Central Asian nations for the United States and its allies to set a date for the withdrawal of their forces from Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

The bases are used in connection with US-led forces' activities in Afghanistan.

Military aircraft

According to the US military, Uzbekistan hosts at least 800 US troops at the air base in the south of the country, while 1200 troops from the United States and South Korea are in Kyrgyzstan.

Some 200 French air force personnel are also based in Tajikistan.

"Afghanistan has had presidential and parliamentary elections. The situation there has stabilised. So now we may begin discussing the necessity of US military forces' presence"

Kurmanbek Bakiyev,
Kyrgyztan president

The United States established its base at Bishkek's airport in late 2001; its main use is for tanker planes that refuel other military aircraft in flight.

Either country can end the arrangement with 180 days' notice.

It is unclear whether Bakiyev, acting president since the March uprising that drove out Kyrgyzstan's longtime leader, made the call under pressure from other members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is aiming to increase its clout.

Geopolitics

However, regional power-brokers Russia and China appear increasingly irritated by the presence of US forces in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan as well as by French forces using facilities in Tajikistan. Russia itself has an air base in Kyrgyzstan.

Both Russia and China supported Uzbekistan's authoritarian regime in its violent suppression of an uprising in the city of Andijan in May, while Western governments harshly criticised the country.

Putin wants to increase Russian
influence in Central Asia

Christopher Langton, of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, said that despite Russia's continued role as an ally in the "war on terror" it is openly challenging Washington for dominance in Central Asia - its former Soviet backyard.

"The relationship between Russia and the United States in Central Asia and Afghanistan is changing, from one based on cooperation after the events of 2001 to one that is more competitive," he said.

China, which is looking to tap into the region's energy resources to feed its booming economy, is also uneasy about the United States' military role on its doorstep, said the expert.

Energy reserves

A US pullout "serves Chinese interests as much as Russia, the Chinese fear encirclement by the US and want to prevent a permanent US military presence in Central Asia," he said.

US officials did not issue any immediate response to Bakiyev's statement.

"Moscow would like to see a diminished US military presence in Central Asia but Russia cannot fill the void - everything it has is tied up in the North Caucasus. Moscow can lose a lot from destabilisation in Central Asia"

Pavel Felgenhauer,
Russian defense analyst

But Central Asia, whose vast oil and gas reserves are seen as a means to reduce reliance on Middle East oil and where political Islam is on the rise, is a region of key strategic interest to the United States.

Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based defense analyst, said that Russia could ultimately lose out too from a US withdrawal given that its forces are preoccupied with the war in separatist Chechnya - because that could mean the spread of Islamist influence.

"Moscow would like to see a diminished US military presence in Central Asia but Russia cannot fill the void - everything it has is tied up in the North Caucasus. Moscow can lose a lot from destabilisation in Central Asia," he said.