NATO nations have accepted the controversial U.S. missile defense system, and decided to focus the alliances' own missile defense efforts on protecting its southern flank against short and medium-range missiles from the Middle East. The moves come amid continuing Russian criticism of the U.S. program, and concern in the Czech Republic about hosting a radar for the system that would further antagonize Russia. VOA's Al Pessin reports from Brussels, where NATO defense ministers are meeting.
A senior U.S. official says the decision on missile defense will be in a communiqué to be issued when this meeting ends on Friday. The official says the communiqué will include a decision to "re-orient" NATO's missile defense plan to take into account the fact that the U.S. system will protect most of Europe from long-range missiles launched from the Middle East and Asia.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said NATO's decision is also "certainly making it easier for the Czech Republic to consider" hosting a radar system for the missile defense shield.
At a news conference, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates described the NATO move this way. "In the session, there were no criticisms by any of the NATO allies of our missile defense proposals or of our moving forward," he said.
Russia has been highly critical of the U.S. desire to put a missile interceptor base in Poland and the sophisticated radar system in the Czech Republic. On Wednesday, Russia's First Deputy Prime Minister, Sergei Ivanov, told the Bloomberg News Service Russia would consider the Polish and Czech sites potential targets. He claimed the system will be aimed at Russia, not what he called a "mythical" missile threat from Iran or North Korea.
Also on Wednesday, a Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the United States should freeze its missile defense program while it evaluates Russia's offer of the use of one of its radar stations in Azerbaijan, as an alternative to building a new one in the Czech Republic.
Secretary Gates said NATO ministers indicated they want the rhetoric over missile defense turned down, and the United States wants to work with Russia on missile defense. But he also made clear the United States will proceed with talks on building the Czech radar while it analyzes the Russian proposal. "I was very explicit in the meeting that we saw the Azeri radar as an additional capability, that we intended to proceed with the radar, the X-band radar in the Czech Republic," he said.
Experts say the radar in Azerbaijan does not use the same technology as the planned Czech radar.
NATO has been working on its own missile defense system for five years, and Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer says member nations have agreed to have experts study what aspects of missile defense the U.S. system will cover. He says the experts will look at how the alliance might supplement that system and protect its southern members, closer to the Middle East, from short and medium-range missiles. De Hoop Scheffer says the experts are to report back by February, in time for senior leaders to act on the issue at their next summit in April.
Secretary Gates says at Thursday's meetings he also expressed longstanding U.S. concerns about insufficient defense spending by NATO members, and the failure to live up to all the commitments for troops for Afghanistan that NATO leaders made at their last summit.
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