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In Poland, uncertainty and fear cloud possible site of US missile defense shield
APTOPIX Poland Missil Heal
Children play in a former military housing area, now inhabited by civilians in Redzikowo, the town in northern Poland that is a likely site for a proposed U.S. missile defense base, on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2008. Officially, no decision has been made about the base and whether it will host 10 interceptor missiles as a part of the U.S.'s global missile defense shield. - photo by Associated Press

REDZIKOWO, Poland - Among the people living around this disused Polish air base, there is little enthusiasm for the missile interceptor station likely to be built here as part of a U.S. missile defense system.

Poland's new government is sounding increasingly skeptical about the plan, arguing that it won't boost Polish security, and that sentiment is echoed throughout this farming region near the Baltic Sea coast.

The main fear is that the area will become a target for retaliation by Russia, which vigorously opposes President Bush's plan.

"If they build the missile defense base here, it'll be a magnet and the first place the Russians will shoot their missiles," said Tadeusz Krajnik, a 55-year-old retired air force technician who lives in one of the brightly colored Communist-era apartment blocs next to the base.

"Let's tell the truth here: It's not aimed against Iran, or against Vietnam or whatever — it's against Russia."

The U.S. wants to place 10 missile interceptors in Poland and a radar base in the Czech Republic, but has been wrestling with hostile perceptions ever since it began negotiating with the two governments early last year.

Washington says the system is needed to defend the U.S. and Europe against long-distance threats from countries such as Iran. Russia argues that such an installation so close to its territory would threaten its security.

Last year, Gen. Nikolai Solovtsov, head of Russia's missile forces, warned that Moscow could target future bases in Poland and the Czech Republic with Russian missiles.

Three miles down the road from this base that once housed Soviet-made fighter jets and was shuttered in 1999, the people of Slupsk, a town of 100,000, are skeptical of assurances from Polish officials that the region will be the nation's safest if it hosts the base.

"I don't like it; if the base gets built, the Russians will fire at us for sure, so we will in fact be the most threatened," says Zenon Kuwalko, a 54-year-old engineer from Slupsk.

Part of the opposition stems from a wider perception that Poland has gained little in return for staunchly supporting the U.S. in recent years and sending troops to Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We have not received any benefits from our cooperation with the Americans so far — not one thing," says Leszek Pieniak, 48, who owns the Pod Kogutem restaurant near the base. "Not in Iraq, not in Afghanistan, not in Poland — nothing. We don't even have visas. I'll tell my grandchildren that maybe in 20 years they'll have a shot at visa-free travel to the U.S."

"I'm against the base and that's it."

The base of 28 hangars behind barbed wire sits on 1,000 acres, with a 1.5-mile runway, and would serve the region better as a small airport for businessmen and tourists, many here believe.

It can help cut unemployment, running at over 20 percent, "Whereas I think that building the base here will in a sense block off and isolate our region," said Jan Junczyk, 48, a reserve captain in Poland's air force who once flew MiG 23s at the base.

Mariusz Chmiel, the county manager for the region, also would rather see a civilian airport open.

He was among a handful of local officials who were flown to the U.S. in August to tour Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, home to missile interceptor silos, and to hear from Vandenberg residents about the base's impact on the community and local economy.

"From my point of view," Chmiel said, "it would be better if the base wasn't built here, but I'm aware that if the base is needed for international security, we aren't going to oppose it."

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