Rice unyielding on missile shield on way to Moscow

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SHANNON, Ireland, Oct 12 (Reuters) US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said the United States needed a missile defense shield in Europe despite Russian misgivings.

Rice was flying to Moscow for talks today that are expected to focus on the controversial US plan to place 10 interceptors in Poland and radar in the Czech Republic.

The United States has said a shield is needed to protect Europe against possible missile launches by ''rogue'' states such as Iran or North Korea. Russia argues such a system could upset the strategic balance and threaten its security.

Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed in July the two countries used a Russian-operated early warning radar at Qabala, Azerbaijan, instead.

Rice, who was trained as a Soviet specialist, said the US-Russian relationship was nothing like the US-Soviet Cold War rivalry but gave no ground on missile defense or the US desire to place radar in the Czech Republic.

''We have been very clear that we need the Czech and Polish sites,'' Rice said. ''But we are interested in other potential sites as well and ... we may be able to find ways to put that together.

''The real central point is that there isn't a threat from the United States to Russia and from Russia to the United States any longer,'' she said.

Rice smiled broadly when asked whether she or US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates would bring any ideas to their ''2+2'' talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov today.

''I'll let you know after we talk to the Russians,'' she said.

''We are going to keep exploring ideas.'' The discussions are also expected to cover Iran's nuclear programme, Russia's threat to suspend its participation in the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty and what might succeed the START nuclear arms reduction treaty, which expires in 2009.

Rice also expects to see Putin who must step down as president next year and recently suggested he might become prime minister.

US-Russian relations have deteriorated over the last six years over disagreements about the Iraq war, independence for Kosovo, how harshly to sanction Iran for its nuclear programme and US concerns about the Kremlin's centralisation of power and what it considers the erosion of democracy in Russia.

Rice plans to meet human rights activists in Moscow tomorrow and declined to say whether she would ask Putin about his future.

''I am not going to tell you what I am going to ask him,'' she said, laughing. ''I am not going to get into speculation with President Putin about what he will or will not do.'' Reuters DKS VP0445

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