US officers inspect Russia's radar station

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QABALA, Azerbaijan, Sep 18 (Reuters) A team of US military experts was today inspecting a Russian-operated radar that Moscow has proposed as an alternative to Washington's plans for a missile defence shield in Europe.

Russian opposition to the US missile shield plan has soured the countries' relations. Moscow says joint use of the Qabala radar in ex-Soviet Azerbaijan is a way out of the dispute, but Washington has treated the offer with caution.

Russian officers were giving a US delegation led by Army Brigadier General Patrick O'Reilly a guided tour of the radar site, a giant concrete block with a sloping face that stands on a hillside overlooking rolling countryside.

O'Reilly is deputy director of the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency.

''It is a tour of the facilities and a briefing by the Russians about their capabilities,'' a US official told Reuters. It was the first time U.S. military experts are known to have visited the 20-year-old radar.

Washington is in talks with the Czech Republic and Poland to locate radars and interceptor missiles on their soil. It says the system will protect against missile attacks from what US officials call ''rogue states'' such as Iran and North Korea.

Russia says the U.S. plan is a threat to its security. In language some observers said was reminiscent of the Cold War, Russian President Vladimir Putin said if the plan goes ahead Russia will once again aim its missiles at European targets.

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.

Russian officials say the station can give early warning of any missile attacks, particularly from the Middle East and that the data can be shared in real time with the United States.

US President George W. Bush said the Qabala offer was ''innovative'', but his officials have made clear it could not be a substitute for the missile shield in Europe.

REUTERS ARB VC1902

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