U.S. Asks Czech Republic to Host Part of Missile Defense System

The prime minister said Saturday that the U.S. wants to build a radar base in the Czech Republic as part of its global missile defense system, a move that prompted a Russian official to immediately warn of "retaliatory measures."

Washington has been negotiating with Poland and the Czech Republic, both former communist states that now belong to NATO, as it explores where to set up a missile defense site in Eastern Europe. The U.S. already has missile interceptor sites in Alaska and California.

American officials say a base in Eastern Europe could help defend the continent against missiles fired by states such as Iran and North Korea. However, Russia has protested Washington's plans, saying it would upset the strategic balance in Europe and could lead to a new arms race.

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Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek said Saturday that a committee would be set up in the next week to discuss the issue. He said a final decision would likely not be made for months.

"We are convinced that a possible deployment of the radar station on our territory is in our interest," he said Saturday. "It will increase security of the Czech Republic and Europe."

There was no immediate comment from the Pentagon on Saturday.

Russia's former Security Council chief Andrei Kokoshin, who heads the parliament's committee for ties with ex-Soviet nations, warned that possible Czech approval of the plan "will not pass without consequences."

Lawmakers dealing with security and defense issues "will recommend taking retaliatory measures" that would "help maintain strategic stability and ensure the national security of Russia and our friends and allies," Kokoshin was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying.

Under the U.S. offer, only the radar part of the system would be hosted in the Czech Republic, Topolanek said. If the plan is approved, some 200 specialists would be deployed to the country and the base would become operational in 2011.

Topolanek has repeatedly supported the U.S. plan.

The prime minister said the offer was made on Friday, minutes after Topolanek's coalition government won a confidence vote in parliament with help from opposition defectors, ending seven months of political deadlock in the country.

Winning approval for the plan could still be difficult as opposition parties have objected to the Czech Republic hosting the missile defense system. The major opposition Social Democratic Party wants a national referendum to be called on the issue, but Topolanek opposes the idea.

An opinion poll released earlier this month indicated that two-thirds of Czechs were against a missile interceptor site on Czech territory, but about some 60 percent would agree with just a radar base.

The poll by the private Factum Invenio agency was commissioned by the Foreign Ministry. It polled 961 people in the second part of December. No margin of error was given, but it usually stands at plus or minus 3 percentage points in similar polls. Results were released in January.

The U.S. request for the Czech Republic to only host the radar site could indicate that Washington was considering setting up the missile interceptor part of the defense system in Poland. Czech authorities refused to comment on what Poland's role might be in the plan. Topolanek said only that he would discuss the issue with his Polish counterpart, Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

A missile site in Poland would further cement a strong alliance with the United States. But it could complicate already uneasy relations with Russia, Poland's major supplier of natural gas and oil. Some in Poland also are concerned that a site might make the country more vulnerable to terrorists or regimes seeking to attack U.S. targets.

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