PRAGUE, Czech Republic // A new deal allowing the US to base a missile defence shield on Czech territory triggered protests in Prague and Moscow, with the Russian government threatening that it may respond with military action. The Czechs are in a violent standoff with Russia over a breakaway region called Abkhazia. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Czech counterpart, Karel Schwarzenberg, signed the pact to build a missile defence base near Prague yesterday, as part of a US global missile defence system aimed at countering possible threats from nations such as Iran. The deal is widely unpopular among Czechs, while Russia sees the system as a potential threat and a provocation in its old East Bloc sphere of influence.
Hundreds of Czechs gathered in a Prague downtown square to protest the agreement, waving banners with slogans such as "It's not over yet," and "Condoleezza is not welcome!" The proposed US missile defence system calls for a tracking radar in the Czech Republic and 10 interceptor missiles in Poland. Moscow has threatened to aim its own missiles at any eventual base in Poland or the Czech Republic. Shortly after the treaty was signed, Russia's foreign ministry said Moscow would be forced to initiate a military response if the deal goes ahead. If the agreement is ratified: "We will be forced to react not with diplomatic, but with military-technical methods," the foreign ministry statement said.
It did not give specifics of what the response would entail. In February, then-President Vladimir Putin said that if the plan advances, Russia could aim missiles toward prospective missile defence sites and deploy missiles in the Baltic Sea region, which borders Poland. US President George W Bush discussed US missile-defence plans with the new Russian president Dmitry Medvedev earlier this week during an economic conference of world leaders in northern Japan. Mr Medvedev said that his hour-long talk with Mr Bush yielded "no particular progress" on issues dividing the countries, particularly the missile shield.
White House national security spokesman Gordon Johndroe, who was with Mr Bush in Japan, said earlier today: "As President Bush said to President Medvedev, we seek strategic co-operation on preventing missiles from rogue nations, like Iran, from threatening our friends and allies. "We want to design a system between the United States, Russia and Europe, with everyone participating as equal partners," he said.
Ms Rice has all but ruled out a stop in Poland this week to finalise plans for the missile defence shield. The plan is widely unpopular with the Polish public. From Prague, Ms Rice was making a brief visit to Bulgaria on Wednesday. She was to receive the nation's highest honour for her help in securing Libya's release of six medics nearly a year ago. * AP