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July 13, 2015

PM Modi to ask Tajikistan for lease of ex-Soviet airbase


Prime Minister Narendra Modi is to ask Tajikistan for the lease of a former Soviet airbase that was refurbished by India in 2007.
Government sources told Mail Today that use of the Ayni airbase for the Indian Air Force, tops the agenda for discussion with Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon when the prime minister arrives on a state visit on July 12.
Tajikistan marks the last leg of Prime Minister Modi's eight-day tour of the five Central Asian Republics and Russia. The Ayni airbase near Tajikistan's capital Dushanbe has long been key to expanding India's strategic footprint in Central Asia. India refurbished the base in 2007 but could not base fighters and helicopters there because of Russian pressure.
"Getting a foreign airbase, particularly in Central Asia is a significant development. But in this case, two other countries, Tajikistan and Russia, have to agree," former Air Chief Marshal PV Naik told Mail Today.
The origins of the airbase lie in the hijacking of Indian Airlines Flight IC-814 to Kandahar. The Vajpayee government began talks for the lease of an airbase after it discovered it had no proximate access to Afghanistan. Tajikistan shares a 1,400-km land border with Afghanistan. In the mid- 1990s India set up a field hospital at another Tajik airbase in Farkhor, over 100 km south-east of the capital Dushanbe, from where it supported the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance forces of Ahmad Shah Massoud.
In 2002, India and Tajikistan signed a bilateral defence agreement, one component of which was the repair of a disused Soviet airbase, Ayni, 10 km west of Dushanbe. The IAF planned to base a squadron of Mi-17 transport helicopters there and also train Tajik Air Force pilots. The Border Roads Organisation spent $70 million (Rs 443 crore) to refurbish the airbase in 2007, lengthening its runway to 3.2 kilometres, and building hangars and an air traffic control tower. Resistance, however, came from an unexpected quarter: Russia, which considers Tajikistan within its sphere of influence. In 2007, Russia pressurised the Tajik government to deny India access to the airbase, and the plans went into cold storage.
The use of the Ayni airbase received fresh impetus from the Modi government. Last September, foreign minister Sushma Swaraj visited Tajikistan during the 14th SCO summit and held talks with the Tajik President. One of the items on the agenda, besides cooperation on counterterrorism, was the use of the Ayni airbase.
Indian government officials say leasing the base could be problematic. Besides Russia, concerns could also be raised by Pakistan and China. The airbase is just a half-hour flying time away from the Tajik-China border. Tajikistan has no land boundary with Pakistan, the two countries are separated by Afghanistan's narrow Wakhan Corridor, but the prospect of an Indian airbase in its rear has raised alarm in Pakistan. In recent years, Pakistan has worked hard to dissuade Tajikistan from the airbase lease. In 2012, Pakistan offered to reactivate two other disused airbases and offered free training for the Tajikistan Air Force.

 indiatoday

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