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 Thursday, 19 December, 2002, 18:07 GMT
Arctic worries over missile shield
Thule Air Base, Greenland
Greenland's Thule base is crucial in new defence plans (US military picture)

The United States' intention to make Greenland a cornerstone in a ballistic missile shield is provoking mixed reaction among the ice-capped island's 56,000 Inuit inhabitants.

The former Danish colony's military base at Thule, which is located 1290 kilometres (800 miles) from the North Pole in the north-west, hosts an early warning radar to detect and deflect missiles aimed at the US.

Under the Pentagon's new proposals - aimed at reducing the threat from so-called rogue states, including Iraq and North Korea - the radar will be significantly updated by 2005.

"People in Thule are strongly against the anti-ballistic missile programme, unless our community gets a lot of money from the Americans," Axel Olsen, the vice-mayor of Qaanaaq located 150 km from the base, told BBC News Online.

"People are afraid if a war begins we will be one of the first targets," he added.

Cold War

A former trading station, the Thule Air Base came into being after Denmark signed an agreement in 1951 giving the US the right to use its colony Greenland in a Cold War defence strategy.

Runways, barracks and aircraft hangers were built on the permafrost where temperatures fall below -40 degrees centigrade.

But in the process 600 Inuit were forced out of their homes.

"We're occupied by strangers. We have to renegotiate the 1951 treaty because we want our land back," said a supporter of the pro-independence Inuit Brotherhood party, Kaaleeraq Nielsen.

Vying for a voice

This week the US formally asked Denmark to allow the Thule base to be used to develop the "son of star wars" programme.

The 1951 agreement between the US and Denmark on defence of Greenland should be renegotiated with direct and active participation of Greenland

Jakob Janussen
Greenland's vice premier Josef Motzfeldt, was allowed to sit in on the meeting between the US Secretary of State Colin Powell and the Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller, which took place in Washington.

But according to local observers, Greenland's political parties are united in wanting their country to be a signatory to any new defence deals.

"The 1951 agreement between the US and Denmark on defence of Greenland should be renegotiated with direct and active participation of Greenland," says chairman of the Commission on Self-Governance of Greenland, Jakob Janussen.

Financial demands

Greenlanders hope the US will pay them for use of the base in their new upgraded defence system.

Pro-independence politicians say by charging the US for its use of the military base they can raise funds needed to operate independently of Denmark.

Aqqaluk Lynge, President of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference - Greenland
ICC's Aqqaluk Lynge says Inuit's must decide defence matters
Greenland currently relies on an annual $375m social benefit payment from Denmark.

"We don't get any financial benefits from the base. Even using the base for our civilian aircraft is out of the question," said Aqqaluk Lynge, president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference in Greenland, which represents the Inuit.

As part of the renewed agreement, the Inuit also want their ally to drop its ban on seal product imports.

The seal skin market was hit in 1972 when the US proscribed the import of marine mammal products.

The World Trade Organisation prohibits countries from restricting trade in products that are not endangered.

As the harp seal does not fall into this category, Greenlanders argue that seal import restrictions are unfair.

"If you want relations with Greenland and Greenland accepts them, then we don't accept trade embargoes," added Mr Lynge.

Nuclear questions

Further development of the Thule military site also threatens the environment, say activists.

In 1968 a US military aircraft carrying nuclear bombs crashed causing pollution of the area.

Even today Greenlanders do not know whether or not Denmark has given the US the right to transport nuclear weapons over Greenland's territory, say locals.

"At least one kilogram of plutonium is unaccounted for," says Greenpeace's Madge Cristensen.

"We have been trying to get an overview of dump sites at Thule but have been denied access... our concern is also for global peace issues," he added.

See also:

09 Nov 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
17 Dec 02 | Americas
09 Dec 02 | Country profiles
Links to more Europe stories are at the foot of the page.


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