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MANAS TRANSIT CENTER Kyrgyzstan (Reuters) - The United States on Tuesday handed back its only Central Asian airbase to the government of Russia's close ally Kyrgyzstan, as President Barack Obama winds down U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Moscow makes a comeback in its old imperial backyard.
In a move aimed at pleasing its former overlord Russia, parliament in Kyrgyzstan voted a year ago to give Washington until July 11 to vacate the Manas Transit Center, which has served U.S. operations in Afghanistan since 2001.
The base, at the main civilian airport in the former Soviet republic, moved more than 5.3 million servicemen in and out of Afghanistan and handled tens of thousands of cargo shipments and refueling missions.
"We were known as the gateway to Afghanistan on freedom's frontier," Colonel John Millard, commander of the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing and Manas base head, told a group of visiting media on Monday.
"We offloaded more than 1 billion liters of fuel to 136,000 coalition aircraft ... We like to say we fueled the fight."
On Tuesday Millard handed over a symbolic golden key to the base to Colonel Mirbek Imayev, deputy head of Kyrgyzstan's elite National Guard.
With Obama now planning to withdraw all but 9,800 American troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year and to pull out the rest by the end of 2016, the importance of Manas to Washington would have been greatly diminished.
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