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Biden wins Czech support for new US missile defence plan

Prague — The Czech Republic said Friday it was ready to take part in a new US missile defence plan, after visiting US Vice President Joe Biden also won backing from fellow NATO allies Poland and Romania.

"As a NATO member and as a country which understands its commitments as well the continuity of its foreign policy in this area, the Czech Republic is ready to participate in the creation of this new architecture," Prime Minister Jan Fischer said at a joint press conference with Biden.

"I’m very appreciative of the prime minister’s statement to me that the Czech Republic is ready to be a part of that new architecture," the US vice president said.

Meanwhile, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the new US missile defence plan also won broad support among NATO nations Friday at an alliance meeting in Bratislava, Slovakia.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen confirmed alliance ministers had "welcomed the plan" that, as Gates explained, is intended to protect US and European populations from the threat of ballistic missile attacks.

Rasmussen said he expected alliance foreign ministers to take up the issue in December and he hoped that a NATO summit in Lisbon next autumn "can agree to make European missile defence fully a NATO mission."

"The new missile-defence programme is designed to meet existing threats in Europe with proven technology that will cover more of Europe, including the Czech Republic, more effectively than the previous system could have done," Biden said Friday in Prague.

A high-level US defence team would visit the Czech capital in early November to discuss the terms of the Czech Republic’s participation, added the vice president before flying back to Washington.

On Wednesday, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk told the visiting Biden that Warsaw was prepared to participate in the new missile defence plan. On Thursday, Romania also endorsed it.

The SM-3 type missile defence system proposed by President Barack Obama’s administration replaces a missile shield plan slammed by Russia.

Biden has flatly rejected critics who said the decision to shelve former US president George W. Bush’s controversial and unproven missile shield in favour of the new system meant Washington had bowed to Moscow.

Cold war-era Soviet satellites Poland and the Czech Republic agreed last year to host elements of the Bush-era shield, respectively missile silos and a high-powered radar.

Bush had insisted the shield was aimed at warding off potential attacks by so-called "rogue" states, namely Iran.

But Moscow blasted the system as a national security threat on its very doorstep and in retaliation threatened to deploy its own missiles in its Kaliningrad exclave, sandwiched between EU and NATO members Poland and Lithuania.

Obama’s September decision to shelve the Bush-era shield had angered right-wing politicians in Poland and the Czech Republic and prompted local media to accuse the US of "treachery" and selling out to Moscow.

But the US president said he had opted for a more flexible system expected to include ship-based missile interceptors after a review found that Iran was developing its long-range missiles more slowly than anticipated.

In September, Gates said that Washington aimed to deploy a new system using SM-3 missiles in Poland and the neighbouring Czech Republic in 2015.

Poland and the Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999, 10 years after the demise of their communist regimes ended Soviet control in the region.