US experts to scour potential missile sites, as Polish paper says deal already done

A team of U.S. military experts arrives in the Czech Republic next week to examine potential sites for a new missile defence base. The United States is said to be considering either the Czech Republic, Poland or Hungary for the new facility, but a Polish newspaper reports that Washington has already reached agreement with Warsaw. Rob Cameron has the following report.

The world's media has been rife with speculation in recent weeks over plans by the US to build a new anti-long-range missile base somewhere in Central Europe. Three countries are said to be under consideration - the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary. All three are NATO members.

The new base, designed as an advance guard against an attack on either the US or Europe, would employ up to 1,000 people, and though controversial, would bring substantial economic benefits - and possibly even political rewards such as the lifting of visas.

The outgoing defence minister, Karel Kuehnl, told reporters on Wednesday that a team of some 20 experts from the US Missile Defence Agency will arrive in the Czech Republic next week to scour potential sites. Mr Kuehnl said the team would examine four military facilities dating from the Warsaw Pact era - in Jince, near Prague, Libava, near Olomouc, Boletice, near Ceske Budejovice and Rapotice near Brno. No obligation would arise from the visit, which, he said, would be purely technical in nature.

However a report this week by a Polish newspaper claims the Czech Republic and Hungary are no longer even in the running. The Polish weekly Przeglad claims in its July 16th issue that Washington and Warsaw have already reached agreement. The base, says the paper, will be located in north-eastern Poland, and work will commence early next year. It will be "ex-territory" in nature, meaning that Poland will have little or no control over it. The missiles deployed there, says the paper, would be equipped with nuclear warheads.

Przeglad describes as "camouflage" claims that the Czech Republic is still in the running. However the paper does concede that supplementary radar stations will also be built to provide advance warning of an incoming missile attack, and one of them could be located in the Czech Republic's Beskydy mountains.

The tone of the article is highly critical of the plan, and no-one knows for sure yet which country Washington will choose. But with the Czech Republic still lacking a government six weeks after the elections, a public that is rather sceptical of US military and political aims, and Poland's proven track record as a staunch US ally, Poland would appear to be the more logical choice.