Local officials meet US Ambassador over radar base

This week the United States officially petitioned the Czech Republic for authorization to operate a radar base about 35 kilometers southwest of Prague. Today the American ambassador, William Graber, is meeting with mayors from the communities in the vicinity of planned installation. It's the first chance the local authorities have had to ask the Americans about their plans.

The proposed base would be located in the Brdy hills, which lie along the main highway between Prague and Pilsen. The biggest town in the area is Pribram, with 35,000 inhabitants, and Pribram's mayor, Josef Rihak, says he has questions for the ambassador.

"Brdy is a huge area, 90% of it is wooded, and it is a source of drinking water for the whole region. So I'll be interested in technical matters concerning the installation. I'm a veterinarian so I'm curious to find out if the radar might cause some emissions similar to a microwave oven. I welcome the US ambassador's willingness to talk with us about this, but I don't expect that they're going to share a lot of the details."

The proposed radar installation is just one component of a missile defense plan that would also include anti-missile defense rockets, possibly to be located in Poland. While the Czech government has indicated its willingness to negotiate with the United States, opinion polls show that the plan is controversial among Czechs. It's thought the base could create jobs, but many fear that it could also make the country a target for attacks by America's enemies.

Frantisek Nerad, a deputy mayor in Strasice on the edge of the Brdy hills, says residents there are divided on the matter.

"People in our town are divided in three groups, each of about the same size: those who want the base, those who don't want it, and those who are indifferent. Those who would support it don't have anything concrete to support, since we don't have any specific details. Here's the question - will it mean more work for people in our town? I have no idea. I can't say. "

Strasice lost many jobs when the Soviet military left the area in the early 1990s. But Nerad wonders whether the arrival of Americans in the vicinity will change much of anything at all.

"I'm 55 years old and all my life, I've never been in that forest. I'd be very curious what's there. We were never allowed when the Russians were here before, and it's remained closed. I imagine I'll die and never set foot in it. Which is a shame. It's a public forest, belonging to the state, and the state belongs to the people."

Photo: CTKPhoto: CTK Sensitive to the perception that one mighty military power may soon tread in the footsteps of another, the American message today is this: we hear you, we are sensitive to your concerns. Vicky Silverman, spokesman for the American embassy.

"Certainly this is a Czech decision and the Czechs lead. But the Ambassador understands that people would like to hear from the AMericans and himself plans to visit any community, any community that will potentially host this kind of facility. And he wants to talk to everyone."

Czech and American officials say it could take about a year to negotiate an agreement on the proposed base.