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US, Russia Close to Agreement on Portable Missiles

Russia's defense minister says the United States and Russia are close to finalizing an agreement on controlling portable anti-aircraft missile systems, which he said are strongly desired by terrorists.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov says it took only a few months for teams from the Russian and U.S. defense establishments to reach an agreement aimed at controlling the trade in what are called Man Portable Anti-aircraft Defense Systems (ManPADS).

"We have already completed the work between the two defense establishments so that an agreement on the exchange of information on ManPADS could well be signed,” he said. “And this agreement is due to be signed pretty soon."

U.S. officials could not confirm or provide any additional information on the pending agreement, which Minister Ivanov described as part of Russian-U.S. cooperation in the war on terrorism.

"This issue is fundamentally important not only for the United States-Russia relationship, but also for global security as a whole, because you know full well that terrorists of all hues and stripes try to get access to ManPADS elsewhere," he added.

The Russian defense minister blamed poor controls during the Soviet era for the proliferation of the missiles and their shoulder-mounted launchers. Officials are concerned that in the wrong hands, they could be used to shoot down a commercial airliner. Indeed, terrorists shot one of the weapons at an Israeli airliner in Kenya in 2003, but missed.

Minister Ivanov says some of the Soviet missiles were left in Afghanistan, as were similar U.S. weapons called the Stinger. In addition, he reports, many former Soviet satellite states had the weapon. Now, he says, the post-Soviet Russian government tightly controls the production, storage and export of new versions of ManPADS, and has control agreements with all the former soviet republics that have the weapon.

The minister described his 18th meeting with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as "meaningful, constructive and fruitful." At a joint news conference the two men referred to each other using their first names, and joked with each other and with reporters.

Mr. Ivanov said issues of terrorism and weapons proliferation are the smoothest in Russian-U.S. relations, with the fewest disagreements between the two sides. Secretary Rumsfeld agreed that the most important U.S.-Russian defense cooperation involves the war on terrorism.

"The United States and Russia share a continuing commitment to wage a global struggle against extremism,” said Mr. Rumsfeld. “These are times of really great consequence for the entire civilized world."

Secretary Rumsfeld also said the only areas where there are problems in U.S.-Russian defense relations are those where the Russian and U.S. systems do not match, with issues handled by different departments.

Minister Ivanov said Russia has accepted an invitation to send observers to a U.S. exercise in April on the safe transfer of nuclear material. He said talks will continue on Russia's opposition to the U.S. missile defense program, and proposals for further arms reductions.

Later Tuesday, Minister Ivanov met with President Bush at the White House. He said they discussed a variety of issues, including Russia's plans to tightly control nuclear fuel that is to be used in a nuclear reactor it has built in Iran.