US in talks over biggest missile defence site in Europe

Posted in United States | 13-Jul-04 | Author: Ian Traynor| Source: Guardian

The US administration is negotiating with Poland and the Czech Republic over its controversial missile defence programme, with a view to positioning the biggest missile defence site outside the US in central Europe.

Polish government officials confirmed to the Guardian that talks have been going on with Washington for eight months and made clear that Poland was keen to take part in the project, which is supposed to shield the US and its allies from long-range ballistic missile attacks.

Senior officials in Prague also confirmed that talks were under way over the establishment of American advanced radar stations in the Czech Republic as part of the missile shield project.

"We're very interested in becoming a concrete part of the arrangement," said Boguslaw Majewski, the Polish foreign ministry spokesman. "We have been debating this with the Americans since the end of last year."

Other sources in Warsaw said Pentagon officers have been scouting the mountain territory of southern Poland, pinpointing suitable sites for two or three radar stations connected to the so-called "Son of Star Wars" programme.

As well as radar sites, the Poles say they want to host a missile interceptor site, a large reinforced underground silo from where long-range missiles would be launched to intercept and destroy incoming rockets.

Under Bush administration plans, two missile interceptor sites are being built in the US - one in California, the other in Alaska. Such a site in Poland would be the first outside America and the only one in Europe.

"An interceptor site would be more attractive. It wouldn't be a hard sell in Poland," said Janusz Onyszkiewicz, a former Polish defence minister.

"This is a serious runner," said a west European diplomat in Warsaw. "It's pretty substantial. The Poles are very keen to have an interceptor site. They want a physical American presence on their territory. They wouldn't be paying anything. It would be a totally American facility."

"I knew about possible radar sites, but I was surprised to hear talk about missile silos," said another source in Warsaw.

In the Czech Republic, too, the proposed radar site, extending to 100 sq km, could be declared extraterritorial and a sovereign US base.

The talks are at the exploratory stage and no decisions have been taken, officials stressed. US officials played down talk of central European participation in the missile shield. But the confidential nature of the negotiations, being led on the US side by John Bolton, the hardline under-secretary of state for arms control, has angered senior defence officials in the region who have been kept in the dark.

Milos Titz, deputy chairman of the Czech parliament's defence and security committee, learned of the talks last week and immediately called the defence minister, Miroslav Kostelka, to demand an explanation. According to the Czech web newspaper, Britske Listy, Mr Kostelka conceded to Mr Titz that the talks were going ahead and promised to supply details to the committee this week.

The committee is to hold an extraordinary session today, apparently to demand more information on the issue from the government.

According to the Washington-based thinktank, the Arms Control Association, the Pentagon has already requested modest funding for preliminary studies on a third missile interceptor site based in Europe.

Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish, director of the Pentagon's Missile Defence Agency (MDA), told Congress this year of plans to construct a missile shield base abroad. "We are preparing to move forward when appropriate to build a third [ground-based interceptor] site at a location outside the United States," he said.

In addition to Poland and the Czech Republic, the Washington thinktank reported last week that the US was also talking to Hungary about possible involvement in the missile shield which is yet to be properly tested and which many experts believe is unworkable. Sources in Warsaw said the US was also talking to Romania and Bulgaria. Last week, the Australian government signed a 25-year pact with the US on cooperating in the missile shield programme.

The two interceptor sites being built in Alaska and California are primarily to insure against potential ballistic missile attack on the US by North Korea. The possible European site is being widely seen as a shield against missiles from the Middle East, notably Syria or Iran.

But many believe that any such facility in Poland would be concerned mainly and in the long term with Russia. Such concerns appear to be reflected in Polish government thinking.

While the Poles were still waiting for specific proposals from the Americans, said Mr Majewski, they were also insisting that any Polish participation had to be squared first with Moscow for fear of creating military tension in the region.

"The Americans are working quite hard on this," he said. "They need to clear the path with the Russians and reach a consensus before we will move ahead."