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Rice Meets Polish Counterpart on Missile Defense

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met her Polish counterpart, Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, for more talks on a possible Polish role in a U.S. regional missile defense system in Europe. Rice leaves Washington late Monday on a European mission to conclude a missile defense deal with the Czech Republic. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Secretary Rice met behind closed doors with Foreign Minister Sikorski in a last-minute effort to conclude a deal before her European mission, which U.S. officials at one point hoped would include a stop in Warsaw to sign an accord.

The United States wants to station 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and an associated radar system in the Czech Republic to counter what U.S. officials believe will be a long-range missile threat from Iran within a few years.

A tentative agreement with the Czech Republic was reached several weeks ago and Rice is expected to sign the agreement this week in Prague.

But negotiations with Poland have been difficult, with the Warsaw government pressing for the United States to underwrite a costly upgrade of the country's air defense system.

Last week, senior U.S. officials said a tentative accord had been reached, but Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk last Friday said the U.S. offer was unsatisfactory, although talks would continue.

In a talk with reporters, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack was cautious about prospects for finalizing an accord during Mr. Sikorski's Washington visit, which will also include talks with Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Rood.

"I do not comment on close or not close," he said. "othing is done until everything is done. It is not done. We continue to work on it. We know it is a big issue for the Polish government. It is an important issue for us. So we are devoting the time and energy to try to work through any issues that may exist on either side."

There have been press reports the Bush administration might turn to Lithuania as an alternate site for the interceptors if the Polish talks stalled, and U.S. officials have acknowledged contacts with the Baltic state on the issue.

Spokesman McCormack said the administration always has a fall-back plan, but said its energies remain focused on the talks with Poland.

Opinion polls indicate the proposed U.S. defense plan is politically unpopular in Poland and the Czech Republic, partly because of strong opposition from Russia, which contends the system would undercut its strategic missile deterrent.

U.S. officials argue the 10 interceptors could not possibly threaten Russia's huge missile force and have offered to cooperate with Moscow on what they depict as a shared threat from Iran or other rogue-state missiles.

Rice's four-day European trip will take her to the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Georgia. It will be her first visit to Georgia as Secretary of State and McCormack said her focus will be on a peaceful resolution of tensions between Georgia and Russia over the separatist Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.