US officials to inspect Azeri radar station

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MOSCOW, Sep 15 (Reuters) US officials will inspect the Qabala anti-missile radar station in Azerbaijan on September 18 as Russia steps up efforts to persuade Washington to form a joint security programme in the ex-Soviet country.

Russia has proposed the idea as an alternative to US plans to install a missile defence system in eastern Europe. A top army official said today the Qabala station would offer better protection against potential attack from the Middle East.

''Our chief goal is to prevent the deployment of a third anti-missile defence region in eastern Europe, in Poland and the Czech Republic,'' Major-General Alexander Yakushin, first deputy head of Russia's Space Forces, told a news conference.

''Our main goal (at Qabala) is to adequately respond to those threats that actually exist from a southern direction, and not some future hypothetical threats in 2025.'' Qabala, among the world's biggest radars, has a 6,000 km range and scans the Indian Ocean, the Middle East and most of North Africa. Russia pays Azerbaijan 7 million dollars a year to rent the station 230 km north of Baku.

Yakushin said 10 US specialists from the Department of Defence, the State Department and the embassy in Azerbaijan would join Russian and Azeri officials for the inspection.

''We are trying to convince our American partners that these intentions are serious and that the station is fully operational and capable of carrying out the mission set before it,'' he said.

Washington has not given its final reply to Moscow and is also continuing talks with Poland and the Czech Republic. No agreements are expected during the Qabala meeting, Yakushin said, although follow-up consultations are planned for October.

Yakushin, who will lead the Russian delegation to Qabala, said the station would not be part of the US national anti-missile system and criticised plans to deploy interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar station in the Czech Republic.

''Claims by the US side that a third anti-missile defence region is not directed at Russia are, gently put, unconvincing,'' he said.

''The radar station in the Czech Republic and the proposed anti-missile complex on Polish territory will have the capacity to knock down Iranian missiles, but naturally they will have the same capacity, and be even more effective, at working against our ground forces in strategic locations on Russian territory.'' Qabala, commissioned in 1985 when Azerbaijan was still part of the Soviet Union, detected the launch of 150 Scud missiles during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and, in January 2007, the test launch of the Iranian Shihab-3 missile.

Azerbaijan retains close ties with Moscow and has also been quick to attract Western investors keen to cash in on the country's booming oil industry.

REUTERS GT BST1714

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