Nation divided over plan to locate US radar base 70 km from Prague

The United States' plan to extend its missile defence system to Central Europe has not only angered its old Cold War adversary Russia, it's also prompted a lively debate in the countries that would be on the sharp end of it. If all goes to plan, Poland would host an interceptor base - meant to shoot down incoming missiles from countries such as Iran - while the Czech Republic would host a radar station - meant to track those missiles as soon as they break cloud cover. The Czech government has said a cautious "yes" to the facility, which would be built in a range of hills about 70 kilometres from Prague in the Brdy military grounds.

It's lunchtime at Rozmital's Pansky Dum pub, and the workers are filling up on plates of goulash and pints of beer. Rozmital is a few minutes' drive from the rolling Brdy hills, which America's Missile Defence Agency has chosen as a potential site for a radar station.

At the height of the Cold War, the Brdy hills were bristling with Russian missiles. The Russians have long gone of course, but the area remains a restricted military zone. If the radar station becomes reality, it would be the first line of defence against an incoming missile attack. And it seems that's not something the people of Rozmital are very happy about:

"When the Russians had their missiles here, we had to keep our mouths shut. Now the Americans want to put their radar here, but the difference is we've got the right to speak out. And I'll tell you this - I'm against it."

"It would be like the bad old days all over again. I think it would make this place a military target. And a terrorist target too."

"I can't see the point of it. Not only because it would be a military target, but also because it wouldn't offer anything to the local people. It would need to offer something to the community - like jobs."

Back in Prague, the campaign against the radar base is gathering momentum. The city library recently hosted a public meeting by a civic initiative called No To Bases, with speeches from some of Europe's leading peace activists. Jan Tamas is the initiative's spokesman:

"We believe this is a step in the wrong direction. We believe that if we want to live in peace, if we want to live in a secure Europe, and in a secure world, we need to begin disarming, not building new weapons, not building new military equipment, and not establishing new military bases."

This is though a very unstable world in which we're living. Iran and North Korea are both on the brink of becoming nuclear powers. What's wrong with defending Europe against a potential attack from such countries?

"We don't believe that they pose a real threat. We are afraid that this is the same story that we were told in 2003, with the supposed threat of Iraq. Now we know there was no threat. Now we know it was just an excuse for the United States administration to attack this country for their own reasons, for their own purposes. We don't want to do something based on threats that are just not real. We don't believe that North Korea would attack the United States with missiles that would fly across Europe, and if you ask any military expert they will tell you this is nonsense. If they wanted to attack the US, the missiles would fly east, just as any other ballistic missile would fly east. Iran, meanwhile, doesn't have the capability to attack Europe, and it will not have that capability within the next ten years. So there's no real threat. And so if there's no real threat, there's no real reason to put these bases here."

Among the guests at the meeting was Rainer Braun, executive secretary of International Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms:

"It is a new part of the militarization of Europe. They will build up new military systems. Second, it will not bring security to Europe, because the other side - and in this case it can be only the Russians - will build up new nuclear weapons. They will leave the INF treaty, which is the only disarmament treaty in the world. So the Czech Republic, and the people of the republic, will be directly opposed - aggressively opposed - by the nuclear arms of Russia. So both sides will lose. And third, it is tremendously expensive."

Across town at the heavily-guarded US embassy, Ambassador Richard Graber's task is to explain the benefits of missile defence. His fundamental message is that a radar base poses no threat to either human health or the environment. Most of all, he says, it will not turn the Czech Republic into a prime military target:

"We're talking about the safety and security of not only the Czech Republic but Europe and the United States. It's a difficult world right now, we face threats and potential threats from countries such as Iran and North Korea, and the United States believes it's very important to proceed with this facility."

What about the fear that placing such a sensitive military installation 70km from Prague creates a big military target for a terrorist attack or indeed a conventional attack?

"First of all, it's not a huge installation in the first place. It will be located in a very small portion of the Brdy military area. But in terms of increasing the risk of terrorist attack, I don't think that's the case at all. When the Czechs decided to join NATO, when the Czechs joined the United States and other allies in the war against terrorism in Iraq, in Afghanistan and other places around the world, the Czechs assumed a risk. Placing a small radar facility in the Czech Republic does not in any way materially increase that risk."

And that's despite a great deal of sabre-rattling from Moscow since the Czechs and Poles said yes - in theory - to missile defence. The head of Russia's missile command sent shivers down a many spine when he said his country would realign its rockets to target Poland and the Czech Republic if they went ahead. But that threat has been brushed aside by Czech officials. Alexandr Vondra is the country's deputy prime minister:

"We have two options. Either to leave them alone, to build this on let's say the national level, but it would lead to decoupling and it would weaken NATO substantially. Or to do this with them, and I think this system - which we plan to develop together with the US - should be in future a certain backbone of the NATO system, once NATO has agreed unanimously to do this."

Isn't it clear though from the Russian reaction that you do risk upsetting the delicate balance of power that exists now in Europe?

"Look, this system can't destroy any kind of delicate balance in Central Europe. It's not true. It's Russian muscle rhetoric. We remember that when we started discussing NATO enlargement. We remember that from various moments in the past, and I think there is no reason to sit back. Not at all, it would be a mistake."

But Russia is obviously not convinced this system is not potentially going to be aimed at Russia, rather than Iran or North Korea.

"Well, that's the other side of the story, so we should be ready - the US, Czechs, Poles, NATO allies - to continue to explain to the Russians that this system is not directed at all against them. It can't influence anything with the size of the system. It's nonsense."

Local people are largely against the base, and are expected to say so in a series of non-binding referendums. Public opinion meanwhile is also turning against the idea. But even if the Czech public were in favour, the base is not a done deal - far from it. The plan must be approved by parliament, where the government has no majority. It's also a government riven with internal dissent over the base, with the Green Party particularly sceptical. Czech officials may have given a cautious thumbs up to the American missile defence plan, but here in Prague it seems the battle for the radar base is just beginning.