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US Denies Talking to Lithuania on Hosting Missile Defense Site


U.S. officials say there are no talks with Lithuania about hosting a missile defense site, even though talks with Poland's new government have been moving more slowly than the United States would like. But the Pentagon spokesman says time is running out on the Bush administration and officials might be forced to move to what he calls "a backup option." VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.

The Pentagon and State Department spokesmen are disputing a statement attributed to Poland's chief negotiator (Witold Waszczykowski) by the Reuters News Service. The report says the United States has opened a parallel set of talks with Lithuania in case the effort to negotiate the placement of missile interceptors in Poland fails.

But State Department Spokesman Tom Casey says recent meetings in Lithuania were only "general conversations" about the missile defense system and that the United States "expects and hopes" negotiations with Poland will succeed. He described agreement as "very close."

Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell put it this way.

"I think they want an agreement, but it's a question of what price," said Geoff Morrell. "And that's what a negotiation is all about, and that's what we're in the midst of right now."

U.S. officials say that price includes a significant upgrade of Poland's air defense system using the latest American military technology, which U.S. officials have been reluctant to provide.

Morrell says Defense Secretary Robert Gates met with his Polish counterpart in Brussels last week and came away convinced that Poland does want an agreement. But Morrell also raised the possibility the United States could look elsewhere if the talks fail.

"We are hopeful that we can soon reach a deal with the Poles, but we have always said that there are other options available to us," he said. "There are several other European nations that could host the interceptors, and Lithuania is one of them. That said, we have not entered into negotiations with any other country, and hope that that does not become necessary."

But the Pentagon press secretary says "time is of the essence," in part because the Bush Administration will leave office in January.

"We want to get a deal done," said Morrell. "We believe it is imperative, given the security threat that we believe is looming for Europe based upon the Iranian missile threat, that we move on this as soon as possible. And that is why we continue to aggressively pursue talks with the Poles. But that is also why we do not close the door on perhaps having to pursue a backup option."

Morrell would not say how long the administration will let the talks with Poland continue. He says the United States will not pursue other options as long as the Poland talks are going well, which he says they are.

Morrell also says U.S. officials expect to finalize an agreement for another missile defense site in the Czech Republic next month. The United States wants to put a sophisticated radar installation in the Czech Republic, and link it to interceptor missile launch sites in Poland, or at an alternative site if necessary.

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