U.S. President George Bush has returned to the White House after completing an eight-day trip to Europe. His final stop was Bulgaria on Monday where he held talks with Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov. In a news conference in Sofia, Mr. Bush again urged Russia to cooperate in developing a missile defense system in Europe. VOA White House Correspondent Scott Stearns has the story.
After laying a wreath at Bulgaria's Tomb of the Unknown, President Bush shook hands with Bulgarian veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, who stood at attention in their desert camouflage in Sofia's Nevsky Square.
Bulgaria has contributed several hundred troops to both wars and is one of the president's biggest allies in the Balkans. The Bulgarian parliament has extended deployment through March of next year. Thirteen Bulgarians have been killed in Iraq.
Speaking to reporters following talks with Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov, President Bush thanked the Bulgarian people for supporting those in Iraq who he says long to live in a free society.
"The fight is tough in Iraq and I know some of your families have suffered," he said. "On behalf of our nation, I extend our condolences and prayers to the families who have lost a loved one against these extremists and murderers."
On Saturday, several hundred pro-Communist Bulgarians demonstrated against the war in Iraq and plans to base 2,500 U.S. troops here. But the president's reception, like his welcome Sunday in Albania, has generally been supportive, unlike large anti-war protests earlier on this trip in Germany and Italy.
Bulgaria is one of the newest members of NATO and wants the trans-Atlantic alliance to play a bigger role in American plans for a missile defense shield in Europe.
American plans to build a radar station in the Czech Republic and a missile battery in Poland to defend against long-range missiles from Iran would not protect Bulgaria.
But President Bush says the long-range missiles it is intended for would fly over the country. Instead, he offered help to defend Bulgaria against intermediate-range missiles.
"And so, just because Bulgaria is not part of the longer-range missile shield, doesn't mean that there won't be equipment and help available for intermediate range," Mr. Bush said. "That's how I can answer that question. I know this creates some concerns around Europe, this missile shield, because of Russian objections."
Russian President Vladimir Putin has portrayed the American plan as the start of a new arms race. But, in a surprise move at this past week's summit of leading industrialized nations, he offered a Soviet-era radar station in Azerbaijan, instead.
President Putin says anti-missile missiles could be based in Turkey or Iraq. If his offer is accepted, the Russian leader says he will not follow through on threats to retarget missiles against Europe if the American plan goes through.
President Bush says that is an interesting idea and that he will discuss it further in talks with Russian leader, early next month.
Speaking through a translator, Bulgarian President Parvanov welcomed a strategic dialogue between the Russian and American leaders, to resolve the conflict over missile defense.
"We Bulgarians would accept any solution that would provide more guarantees, more security guarantees, more guarantees of the indivisibility of the security of the Euro-Atlantic space, any solution that has been achieved, hammered out through dialogue and in transparency, and any solution that is not directed against any third country, notably Russia in this case," said Mr. Parvanov.
Bulgaria depends almost entirely on Russian energy supplies and wants to avoid any conflict between Russia and the West, having just joined the European Union in January.
President Bush and President Parvanov also agreed on the need for an independent Kosovo. That is another source of conflict with President Putin who wants to see the province remain part of Serbia.