US, Czech Republic sign missile shield deal (Lead)

July 9th, 2008 - 12:59 am ICT by IANS  

Prague, July 8 (DPA) US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Czech counterpart Karel Schwarzenberg signed a treaty Tuesday under which the Czech Republic is to host a radar base for a missile defence shield the US plans to build in Europe. The signing went ahead even though the deal faces hurdles in Czech parliament where the centre-right government of Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek will likely need opposition backing to get it ratified.

But Schwarzenberg told reporters after the signing ceremony that he believed lawmakers would live up their responsibility and vote in favour of scheme, which has been criticized by Russia.

Washington and Prague still need to finalize talks on a Status of Forces Agreement defining the role of US troops stationed at the radar base, located in a military zone one hour’s drive from Prague.

The Czech Republic has pressed ahead with the defence project deemed important to the United States, while holding up ratification of the Lisbon Treaty designed to reform the 27-member European Union (EU).

While Schwarzenberg said both treaties were equally important for the Czech Republic’s security, Topolanek’s eurosceptic Civic Democrats have asked the country’s top court to review the EU pact before putting it to a vote.

Moscow said the missile shield would increase tensions in Europe and expressed fears it could be used to spy on Russia instead of protecting Europe against missile attacks by so-called rogue states like Iran.

Washington wants to place 10 interceptor missiles as part of the system in Poland, but talks with Warsaw have been deadlocked over Polish demands for military aid.

The White House has so far failed to soften objections by Moscow, which does not like the idea of US military bases in its former Soviet satellites, now members of NATO and the EU, and has threatened to target its missiles at them.

The project could face obstacles in the US when a new president replaces George W. Bush in January.

Rice told reporters that she does not plan to actively promote the shield to the presidential candidates, but made a case against hindering the project in the face of a growing Iranian missile threat “that is getting ever longer and ever deeper”.

“It is hard for me to believe that this is a capability that an American president will not want to have,” she said.

The US plan is not popular with the Czech public. Polls have repeatedly shown that more than 60 percent of Czechs oppose the project.

Opponents of the deal, who planned a protest in Prague’s Wenceslas Square later Tuesday, want the government to delay further talks until after the November presidential election in the US.

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