Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is continuing her European trip in Ukraine after signing an agreement in Bucharest that gives U.S. forces access to a strategic Romanian base on the Black Sea. It is the first U.S. base agreement with a former Warsaw Pact country.
U.S. defense officials have long been interested in the largely unused Mihael Kogalniceanu Air Base near Constanta on the Black Sea as part of the Bush administration's global force realignment program.
It served as a transit point for U.S. troop deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Pentagon has already spent several million dollars to upgrade security and infrastructure at the site.
The envisioned 100-member American headquarters unit at the base would be the first U.S. forces to be permanently stationed in a former Warsaw Pact country.
Officials say the base will also have a rotating presence of another 1,500 U.S. service personnel, and troops from other countries may also be invited to train there with the agreement of the Romanian government.
Secretary Rice signed the base accord during a three-hour Romania visit that included talks with President Traian Basescu, a former Bucharest mayor who has become a key U.S. anti-terrorism ally since taking office a year ago.
The base near Constanta has been identified by the New York-based group Human Rights Watch as having been the site of one of an alleged network of covert CIA detention centers for terrorist suspects, served by secret flights carrying detainees.
However, at a joint news conference with Secretary Rice, President Basescu repeated his country's denials of the prison allegations, while challenging international human rights monitors to come to Romania to see for themselves.
For her part, Secretary Rice said the base deal will be transparent and debated in the Romanian parliament. But she held to her refusal to either confirm or deny reports of the alleged CIA prisons or over-flights.
"It will be clear for everyone to see that this is a base where we intend to keep access for training, and to enhance our capabilities and Romania's capabilities to be able to do the sort of activities we're doing together in Iraq and in Afghanistan," she said. "I've spoken earlier to the reports about activities, but I've said, and I will say again, that I am not going to talk about whether such activities take place, because to do so would clearly be to get into a realm of discussion about supposed or purported intelligence activities, and I just simply won't do that."
As she did earlier in Berlin, Ms. Rice defended U.S. methods in the struggle against terrorism, including rendition - secretly transferring terrorist suspects outside of normal extradition procedures.
She said taking would-be terrorists off the streets and using every lawful means to interrogate them and gather intelligence information is, as she put it, "a practice that saves lives."
Before she departed on her trip Monday, Ms. Rice said in a formal statement the United States does not permit, tolerate or condone torture under any circumstances and has not and will not transport any detainee where it is believed he or she would be tortured.
The secretary will meet here Wednesday with senior Ukrainian officials, including President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov, who assumed office in September after the president's ten-month-old coalition splintered.
Ms. Rice says she wants to help keep the democratic reforms promised by Ukraine's 2004 "Orange Revolution" on track.