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Last Updated: Saturday, 8 March 2008, 02:28 GMT
US lobbies Poles on missile shield
By Adam Easton
BBC News, Warsaw

US missile interceptor test (file pic)
The US plans a global shield to protect against "rogue" states
The controversial US plan to build a missile defence shield in Europe is likely to dominate talks between President George Bush and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk at the White House on Monday.

It is Mr Tusk's first visit to Washington as prime minister and many people in Poland had expected that a deal on missile defence would be reached there.

But that does not seem likely now. Mr Tusk's government has taken a much tougher stance during negotiations than its predecessor led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, whose twin brother Lech is still the country's president and an ardent supporter of missile defence.

Russia has threatened to target Poland if the base, including 10 interceptor missiles, is built.

Tucked away in a forest of birch trees you would never know the airfield had any importance today, were it not for the small blue rigs drilling test holes

Mr Tusk wants concrete assurances that the Americans will agree to modernise the Polish military and specifically beef up Poland's air defences in exchange for the base.

"Co-operation with the Americans is for us one of the real guarantees of our security. That's why we take seriously any form of co-operation the Americans propose," Mr Tusk told the BBC.

"But the installation of the missile defence system will not by itself increase our security, just the opposite. That's why we expect from the Americans a parallel effort to concretely increase Poland's security, not just US security."

'Rogue states'

The Polish government's position is now much more cautious than in the neighbouring Czech Republic. There, despite strong public opposition to the US proposal to host the system's radar, the administration has already agreed in broad terms with Washington.

US missile defence graphic

The Polish government has never confirmed it, but the likely site for the base is a disused airstrip next to the tiny community of Redzikowo, near the Baltic Sea coast.

The plan is for 10 interceptor missiles designed to shoot down long-range ballistic missiles fired from what President Bush calls "rogue states", such as Iran or North Korea.

For decades the airfield, and its Cold War-era aircraft hangars, were home to the Polish Air Force until it was closed down in 1999.

Tucked away in a forest of birch trees you would never know it had any importance today, were it not for the small blue rigs drilling test holes into the ground beside the runway. The tests will determine if the ground is suitable for the missile silos.

George Bush in Czech Republic
The Czech Republic and US are close to agreeing on a radar

Some residents think America's plans for the base could help revive the area.

"I agree with the idea of building this base in our district," said primary school teacher Lukasz Koss, from the nearby town of Slupsk.

"I think it can give us a chance to build something new, for example the new aqua park, new roads. Maybe the Americans can help us to cut unemployment."

I asked him whether he was afraid the base might become a target for the Russians or terrorists.

"No, I think we are a part of some military organisations, for example Nato, the European Union - and I think we are safe here and I'm not afraid of it," he said.

'Nuclear reprisals'

But many locals are opposed to the idea.

Donald Tusk
It is unlikely that a deal will be reached during Mr Tusk's US visit

"I'm very much against it. This base will give us nothing," said retired air force officer Tadeusz Krajnik, from Redzikowo.

"On the contrary, it threatens us and increases the danger of a nuclear attack from the east, from Russia, just like Putin said. I'm not even talking about North Korea or Iran, because they don't have missiles that could reach us."

The mayor of Slupsk district, Mariusz Chmiel, has followed the talks for many months and last October even visited California to see the US missile defence installations.

He believes the base will not bring his constituents an economic boom and he has written a letter in protest to the prime minister.

But the government is pressing ahead with the negotiations, despite both the local concerns and the strong objections from the Russians, who say the base will destabilise regional security.

There is also the problem that the forthcoming US elections might return an administration lukewarm on missile defence.

Ahead of Mr Tusk's visit to Washington, foreign minister Radek Sikorski acknowledged a missile defence deal was far from wrapped up.

"The outcome of this negotiation is not a foregone conclusion yet. There is some political risk involved in these negotiations because the next US administration might take a different view. It's an unusually complex decision," he told the BBC.

Tough talks ahead

Until recently Washington did not even want to talk about offering Poland anything in return for the base.

Mr Sikorski is aware missile defence is not popular - the most recent opinion polls suggest more than half of Poles are against it.

That is why, he says, the Americans must agree to help modernise the Polish military if the deal is to make it through parliament.

Mr Sikorski says it is very unlikely an agreement will be reached during Mr Tusk's visit and there are still months of tough bargaining ahead.



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