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CZECH REPUBLIC - RICE

Rice to sign missile shield deal in Prague

3 min

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is due to sign a missile shield deal with the Czech Republic in Prague. Rice will also stop by Tbilisi to renew US support for Georgia's future membership of NATO. Both moves have spurred Russian hostility.

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US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice left for Europe Monday to sign a missile shield deal with the Czech Republic and renew US support for Georgia's eventual membership in NATO, both sore points for Russia.

And in signs of tension over separatist conflicts in Georgia, the United States urged Russia to "reverse its recent provocative steps" in Abkhazia and consult with Tbilisi on "future steps" in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

However, following planned stops in Prague and Tbilisi, Rice was not expected to visit Warsaw to sign a complementary missile defense deal with Poland, after US officials admitted their 14-month talks with the Poles have yet to conclude.

The United States wants to deploy the shield in the central European nations by 2011-2013 to ward off potential attacks by so-called "rogue" states like Iran, but Russia has denounced the plan as a threat to its own security.

Military analyst Anatol Lievin of King's College London said the missile shield issue is part of a broader threat perceived by Russia.

"The Russians are deeply hostile partly because of the threat they see to their own nuclear deterrant and also to the security of their air space but also because of the association with NATO enlargement to Ukraine and Georgia," Lievin told AFP.

Russia is opposed to having the US missile shield on its doorstep, and public opinion in Poland and the Czech Republic is broadly opposed to the defensive system.

A deal under which the Czech Republic would house the radar base was concluded in April. It will be signed in Prague on Tuesday, US and Czech officials say.

NATO endorsed the US plan at its April summit in the Romanian capital Bucharest.

US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Rice will discuss the membership action plan for Georgia, which would help pave the way for its membership in the transatlantic alliance.

And her spokesman said Rice will try to promote reforms in Georgia and a peaceful resolution of its separatist conflicts during her visit to Tbilisi this week.

Rice's Tbilisi visit, following stops in Prague and Sofia, is designed to "encourage Georgia's continuing along the pathway of economic and political reform," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters.

He also expected her "to talk about resolving some of the existing issues related to Abkhazia as well as South Ossetia, and to encourage resolution of those conflicts purely and solely within the confines of a peaceful resolution."

McCormack added: "Certainly we'll encourage the Georgian government to work in good faith as well as other parties to work in good faith and that includes Russia."

Georgia regularly accuses Russia of seeking to annex South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and derail its efforts to join the NATO military alliance. Russia in turn accuses Tbilisi of preparing to take back the breakaway regions by force.

Abkhazia will cut all ties with the national government, rebel leader Sergei Bagapsh was quoted as saying Monday after blaming Georgian officials for recent attacks.

Abkhaz and Georgian officials have very little direct contact but some transportation links still remain between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia.

Tensions have risen since Russia in April sealed a formal cooperation accord with Abkhazia, partly inspired by Kosovo's independence declaration.

Abkhazia has enjoyed de facto independence since breaking away in a conflict after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

Abkhazia's independence is not formally recognized by any country.

Meanwhile, tensions soared in South Ossetia on Friday after separatists said two people were killed by intense shelling and threatened to retaliate with heavy weapons.

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