SOFIA, Bulgaria – Thousands of Bulgarians demonstrated Thursday against a deal to allow U.S. troops to use military facilities in the country.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was expected to arrive in Bulgaria later Thursday for a meeting of NATO foreign ministers, is to sign the agreement Friday with her Bulgarian counterpart, Ivailo Kalfin.
Under the deal, seen as part of a broader U.S. military strategy of shifting troops based in Europe farther east, up to 2,500 U.S. troops would be deployed in the Balkan country on a rotational basis.
The rally against the plan was organized by an ultranationalist party called Attack and drew several thousand people to a park a few hundred yards from the venue for the NATO meeting.
The protesters shouted, "Yankees Go Home," and waved banners that read, "Condi, ask the Bulgarian people" and "U.S. bases War."
In a declaration, protesters called on the government to put the issue of to a referendum.
According to the Attack party, 200,000 Bulgarians have signed a petition against the deployment of foreign troops to Bulgarian military bases.
Officials expect the first U.S. troops to arrive at the end of the year or early in 2007.
The agreement would give U.S. troops access to three bases in southern Bulgaria for training and logistical operations. The locations are the Bezmer and the Graf Ignatievo air bases and the Novo Selo training area.
Attack party leader Volen Siderov told the rally that "from Bulgarian airports, U.S. military jets will take off to attack other countries."
"Bulgaria is preparing to enter a new dirty war, this time against Iran," Siderov said.
Protester Lyuben Bozhilov said opening Bulgaria's territory to U.S. troops could make the country a target for terrorists.
Foreign Minister Ivailo Kalfin recently tried to downplay such fears, saying that weapons of mass destruction would not be deployed to the facilities used by U.S. troops.
"The agreements between the United States and Russia on non-deployment of nuclear weapons in the new NATO member states guarantees that there will be no nuclear weapons in Bulgaria," Kalfin said.