Saturday, June 09, 2007

Azerbaijan favors anti-missile idea

June 8, 2007
Seattle Post Intelligencer, WA

MOSCOW -- Officials in Azerbaijan, a nation with a questionable human rights record and huge oil reserves, on Friday welcomed Moscow's call to use a Russian-leased radar installation in their country as the cornerstone of a proposed U.S. anti-missile system.

Elmar Mammadyarov, Azerbaijan's foreign minister, said in the capital of Baku that the proposal "can only bring more stability into the region because it can lead to more predictable actions in the region."

Novruz Mamedov, head of the Azerbaijani presidential administration's international relations department, told Russia's Rossiya TV that "such cooperation can have a very strong and positive impact on the situation in the world as a whole.

"If such countries as Russia and the U.S. cooperate, they will have common interests and it will prevent tensions," he said.

For weeks, Russian President Vladimir Putin bitterly denounced the U.S. plan to build a missile interceptor base in Poland and a radar site in the Czech Republic, saying the system was aimed at Russia's strategic arsenal.

Then on Thursday, Putin caught President Bush off guard by urging that the Soviet-era radar installation at Gabala, in northeast Azerbaijan, be used instead as part of a joint U.S.-Russian missile shield. On Friday, he suggested the missile intercepter base could be in Turkey or at sea.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Friday that Putin's idea was worth studying, but stressed that negotiations on putting the bases in eastern Europe would continue.

"One does not choose sites for missile defense out of the blue," she said in an interview with The Associated Pres. "It's geometry and geography as to how you intercept a missile."

A Russian military expert said the Gabala installation was built to track U.S. bombers and submarine-launched missiles from the Indian Ocean.

The Bush administration has said it seeks to counter future missile threats to Europe from Iran, which Washington fears is developing nuclear weapons.

Azerbaijan, a former Soviet nation of 8.5 million about the size of Maine, is on the western shore of the Caspian Sea, flanked by Russia to the north and Iran to the south. It is one of the countries in Central and South Asia that the U.S. has turned to since the Sept. 11 attacks, despite their mixed records on human rights and democracy.

The government in Baku has contributed 150 soldiers to the war in Iraq and 20 to coalition military forces in Afghanistan.

According to a Council of Europe report last year, Baku has served as a refueling stop for CIA aircraft shuttling terror suspects to secret prisons.

The country has rich oil and natural gas deposits - Baku was one of the first oil boomtowns in the 19th century. But according to government statistics, nearly one-fifth of the population lives in poverty.

Azerbaijani authorities have been criticized by rights groups and the U.S. government for their hostility to independent and opposition journalists.

Human Rights Watch says that over the past year or so, authorities have prosecuted and imprisoned seven journalists, mostly on charges of criminal libel and "insult." Journalists are also attacked and threatened with violence, the group said.

The State Department's human rights report for 2006 said the Azerbaijani government engages in the arbitrary arrest and detention of political opponents.

The country is also the site of one of the "frozen conflicts" left over from the post-Soviet era. Azerbaijan and Armenia are at odds over Nagorno-Karabakh, a region that is inside Azerbaijan but has been controlled by ethnic Armenian forces since a 1994 cease-fire ended a six-year war.


Associated Press writer Maria Danilova contributed to this story.

Note: Above are excerpts from the article. The full article appears here. Clarifications and comments by me are contained in {}. Deletions are marked by [...]. The bold emphasis is mine.

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