REDZIKOWO, Poland – Poland's prime minister sought to reassure worried residents near the site of a planned U.S. missile defense base on Friday, pledging that they and the country would be more secure, despite threats from an angry Russia.
Before facing residents at a town hall meeting in the city of Slupsk, Prime Minister Donald Tusk visited the former Polish air base in Redzikowo — just 115 miles from Russia's westernmost edge — that is to host the facility.
"In case of war, Redzikowo and Slupsk will be more secure than other places, and not less secure," Tusk told reporters.
Still, some people in Slupsk — a city of 100,000 about 3 miles away — needed more convincing.
One person at the three-hour meeting in a theater could be heard shouting that "you condemned Redzikowo and Slupsk to annihilation like Hiroshima and Nagasaki."
Tusk countered that "from the point of view of Poland's interests, we will be strategically more secure."
"I am the last person to seek conflict with our neighbors, but as prime minister I must not leave Poland defenseless," said Tusk — whose calm approach gradually quieted what started as a heated gathering. He added that Poland's current security systems are "meager."
Poland and the United States reached a deal earlier this month on building the site for 10 U.S. missile defense interceptors by 2012.
The U.S. says the installation is meant to protect Europe and America from attacks from Iran. But Russian officials say they consider the site a threat and have threatened to attack Poland — possibly even with nuclear weapons.
As part of the deal, the U.S. will establish a battery of Patriot missiles at an undetermined location in Poland, a security boost Warsaw demanded in light of fears over Russia.
City councilor Bronislaw Nowak asked Tusk: "Can you deny that, having the shield base, Redzikowo will be target No.1 for countries that don't agree with it?"
The premier replied that America's investment in the site guaranteed it would be well protected in the unlikely event of a conflict.
Asked why he was so trustful of the U.S., Tusk replied that "I prefer to have here American troops rather than Soviet troops."
The remark — a reference to four decades of Soviet domination before communism ended in Poland in 1989 — drew applause.
In addition to the security concerns, some residents worry that the missile defense site will hamper economic development in an area with 20 percent unemployment. Previous plans called for turning the air base into a civilian airport to boost local business.
Tusk said the Americans are planning to invest some $300 million in the base. The economic outlook "depends on you how well you are able to seize that opportunity," he said.
He pledged to upgrade poor local roads and invest in education in the region.
Tusk already has told local authorities that the U.S. base would create construction jobs and new businesses needed to support the 500 American troops expected to man the facility.
The base belonged to Germany during World War II, and Nazi bombers took off from it to attack Poland.
From 1952, it housed the 28th regiment of the Polish air force. Its fighters were the first from Poland to take part in NATO exercises, in the 1990s.
In 1999, the regiment was disbanded and the site was turned into a standby base with just 200 air force and civilian employees, compared to some 850 previously. The 1.5-mile runway and 28 hangars are idle.
Washington plans to put a radar tracking system in the Czech Republic that would work with the Polish site. The plans still require approval from both countries' parliaments.