U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell paid a visit to Greenland Friday to sign agreements allowing the United States to upgrade the Thule air base on Greenland's northwestern coast. It was the first-ever visit by a secretary of state to Greenland, a semi-autonomous territory of Denmark.
Mr. Powell flew with just a small entourage of officials to the southern tip of Greenland, where he joined Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller and Greenland's vice premier, Josef Motzfeld, in signing the three agreements.
The ceremony was held in Mr. Motzfeld's home village of Igaliku. The entire population of the sheepraising community - about 40 people - turned out for the event, some in traditional native Inuit costume.
The secretary was given a tour of Norse ruins dating to the year 1200, and he joined other participants at a luncheon that included roasted reindeer and musk-oxen, and local seafood.
The United States has operated the base at Thule on Greenland's northwestern coast since 1951.
The three-party agreements among the United States, Denmark and Greenland's home rule government will allow the U.S. Air Force to update an early-warning radar system at the base, which is about 1300 kilometers from the North Pole.
The accords commit the United States to adhere to tough Danish and Greenlandic environmental standards at the base, and also require the United States to consult with both the Copenhagen government and Greenland's Cabinet on future changes at the Thule facility.
In an interview with Greenland's television station, Mr. Powell said the agreements show a maturing of the three-way relationship, and that the parties will work together in the future as equal partners.
He said the radar upgrade at Thule, including a system for detecting ballistic missiles, will help cope with future threats to the civilized world, including international terrorism.
He said there are no current plans to seek the installation of interceptor missiles at Thule, and that any such decision would be some distance in the future.
Greenland officials have opposed use of the base for active missile-defense. Mr. Powell said U.S. officials do not want to do anything that would put at risk the strong relationship with the island that has existed for many years.
Foreign Minister Moeller, for his part, said the Danish government is not fundamentally opposed to missile defense, but has given its consent only to the radar upgrades included in Friday's agreements.
The Thule airbase housed thousands of U.S. military personnel and long-range aircraft during the Cold War years. But the presence has dwindled, and today, only about 125 Americans are there along with a few hundred local staff members.
Greenland, the world's biggest island, is largely covered by glaciers, in some places to a depth of over 3000 meters. It is home to about 60,000 people who mainly live in villages along the island's rugged east and west coasts.