NATO, Russia fail to defuse missile shield row

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NATO and Moscow failed anew to defuse a rift over a US-backed European missile shield on Thursday as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that time was running out for a solution.

"On missile defence, we do not agree yet," NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said after talks between alliance foreign ministers and Lavrov, whose government has threatened to deploy missiles near EU borders.

"But we all agreed that it is important to keep on trying, to keep on talking, and to keep on listening to each other's concerns," he told a news conference.

Seeking to allay Russian fears that the defence system to be deployed partly in former Soviet bloc countries will undermine Russia's strategic arsenal, Rasmussen reiterated that NATO allies "do not consider Russia an enemy."

NATO renewed its invitation to cooperate with Russia on the system -- being set up in Romania and Poland as well as in Spain and Turkey -- "so that they can see with their own eyes that it's not directed against Russia," he added.

Russia wants NATO to provide a legally-binding document stating that the anti-ballistic missile system is not pointed at it, but the alliance says it has made enough statements to that effect.

"We want to have clear guarantees that the missile defence capabilities will not be targeted against our strategic capability," Lavrov told a news conference after the talks.

Moscow also suggests that both sides operate a joint missile shield, but NATO insists on keeping two separate systems with the former Cold War foes sharing data.

"We stand ready to dialogue provided legitimate interests of all parties are taken into account," Lavrov said. "We still have some time, but time is running out every day."

Rasmussen said he hopes a deal will be struck at the next NATO summit in May 2012 in Chicago.

President Dmitry Medvedev last month announced that Russia was ready to deploy intermediate range Iskander missiles in the Kaliningrad exclave that borders EU members Poland and Lithuania.

Russia later also switched on a new radar warning system against incoming missiles in Kaliningrad and said it reserved the right to strike NATO's European shield components if its demands were not met.

Top Russian General Nikolai Makarov has warned that Moscow was "being pushed" into a new arms race.

British Foreign Minister William Hague said Medvedev's threat was "disappointing" but that NATO was still willing to seek cooperation.

"NATO's offer is on the table to Russia and we would like to see practical cooperation on missile defence go ahead," Hague told reporters.

NATO and Russia agreed last year to explore ways to cooperate in the system, which Western officials insist is aimed at warding off attacks from Iran or other "rogue states."

NATO and the United States have sought to improve ties with Russia since President Barack Obama took office in 2009.

But US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton angered Russia this week by voicing "serious concerns" about the country's parliamentary elections and calling for allegations of fraud and vote-rigging to be investigated.

Russia was very critical of NATO's air war in Libya, accusing the alliance of violating its UN mandate.

Lavrov repeated Russia's concerns and warned against using Libya as a model for future interventions. "We strongly oppose that suggestion," he said.

People in the Arab world "should determine their own fate," he said, adding that Yemen's peace plan, in which the president agreed to step down, could be applied to Syria.

Despite lingering suspicions between the former Cold War foes, Russia has allowed the alliance to use its territory to send vital supplies to troops in Afghanistan.

The transit route through Russia has become all the more important since Pakistan shut down supply lines in anger at a deadly air strike on the Afghan border last month that killed 24 Pakistani troops.

Russia ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, reportedly warned that his country could close the transit route. But Rasmussen dismissed it as "an empty threat," arguing that a stable Afghanistan was in Moscow's interest.

© 2011 AFP

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