PRAGUE (AFP) — US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice signed Tuesday what she called a "landmark" missile defence deal with the Czech Republic, drawing immediate condemnation and threats from Russia.
The accord permits the siting of a tracking radar station on Czech soil as part of an extended US missile shield that Washington says is necessary to ward off potential attacks by so-called "rogue" states such as Iran.
Moscow immediately threatened to respond with "military resources" to what it sees as a threat on its doorstep from the proposed system.
"If a US strategic anti-missile shield is deployed near our borders, we will be forced to react not in a diplomatic fashion but with military resources," a statement from the foreign ministry said.
But the United States said Wednesday that Russia and Europe should be "equal partners" in its planned missile defence.
"We seek strategic cooperation on preventing missiles from rogue nations, like Iran, from threatening our friends and allies," said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe. "We will continue to have a dialogue with the Russians."
"We want to design a system between the United States, Russia and Europe, with everyone participating as equal partners," Johndroe said on the margins of a rich nation summit at Toyako in northern Japan.
"It's truly a landmark agreement," Rice said after signing the accord with Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg. "It is an agreement that is befitting for friends and allies who face a common threat in the 21st century."
During her talks in Prague, Rice charged that Iran's work to build longer-range missiles was proceeding "apace" while at the same time it was defying international calls to halt sensitive nuclear technology.
"Ballistic missile proliferation is not an imaginary threat," the top US diplomat warned.
Rice also reiterated Washington's position that the radar station was not aimed at Russia and instead served as a "building block" for not just Czech and US security but for the "international community as a whole."
The United States wants the radar twinned with interceptor missiles in neighbouring Poland, although negotiations with Warsaw have becomed bogged down with Polish demands for additional security guarantees.
Rice said she thought it made no sense to visit Poland during her current tour of Europe because gaps remained in the negotiations.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had already clashed with US President George W. Bush over missile defence at their first face-to-face meeting, during the G8 summit in Japan on Monday.
Analysts say the Russians fear not only a potential long-term threat to their own nuclear deterrent and the security of their airspace but also associate the shield with NATO's enlargement to include Ukraine and Georgia.
NATO endorsed the US missile defence plan at its April summit in Bucharest.
The US has in the past suggested that Russian inspectors could visit the anti-missile sites, as long as Prague and Warsaw agreed.
"We want the system to be transparent to the Russians," Rice insisted Tuesday.
Protestors from Greenpeace, who fear the missile shield will trigger a new arms race, unrolled a massive image of a target on one of the hills overlooking Prague ahead of Rice's arrival.
Opinion polls regularly show around two-thirds of Czech opposed to hosting the US radar.
Around 2,000 demonstrators gathered in Prague's central Wenceslas Square, with banners proclaiming "No to the Radar" and "Resign."
But Schwarzenberg expected the deal to be ratified by parliament.
"There are sufficient lawmakers who are sufficiently aware of their responsibility and will go forward in strength during the voting," he told reporters.
Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek said the deal reflected a "joint desire to protect the free world".
Prague was the first leg of a three-country tour that will take Rice to Bulgaria and Georgia where she will renew US support for Tbilisi's bid for NATO membership -- another bone of contention with Moscow.