Austrian Under Fire After Missile Remark

The Associated Press
Thursday, August 23, 2007; 10:44 AM

VIENNA, Austria -- Austria's defense minister came under fire from the Czech Republic on Thursday after accusing the U.S. of a "provocation" for pressing ahead with contested plans to build a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe.

Norbert Darabos told the Die Presse newspaper in an interview published Thursday that he does not view the possibility of a rocket attack by Iran as a serious threat. Darabos urged U.S. officials to seek a compromise with Russia, which fiercely opposes the plan.

Washington argues that the system, which would include 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar based in the Czech Republic, would help guard against a potential threat from Iran.

"I do not see this danger," Darabos, a Social Democrat, said in the interview.

"I regard it as a provocation that the U.S. now develops a missile shield in Eastern Europe," he said, contending that Washington's plans were "unnecessarily reviving old Cold War debates."

The Defense Ministry had no comment on the interview, a transcript of which was published by Die Presse on Thursday.

But Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg challenged Darabos' characterization, telling reporters in Prague that the shield was needed to secure the entire continent.

"I consider it a fundamental mistake from the minister. It has never been a provocation, but a measure aimed at ensuring security of Europe and the allies in the future," Schwarzenberg said at a meeting of the lower chamber of parliament's foreign committee.

Neither the Czech Republic nor Poland has given final approval to host the missile defense system, although both are expected to sign off on it by the end of the year. Both are members of NATO and the European Union.

Although the governments of the two former Soviet satellites have publicly backed the concept, surveys suggest that ordinary citizens remain opposed. Recent polls suggest about 65 percent of Czechs don't want the radar, fearing it could make their country a terrorist target.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has shrugged off U.S. claims that the interceptors would be directed against potential missile threats from Iran, contending they would threaten Russia's security and trigger a new arms race.

"I personally think the U.S. has taken the wrong path," Darabos was quoted as saying. "There must be other possibilities."

© 2007 The Associated Press