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Russian minister silent on US assertion missile defense plans not to be replaced

There was no loud response on U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates' assertion that the Bush administration will not replace its plan for a missile defense system in Eastern Europe with Russia's counterproposal for a radar site in Azerbaijan.

Gates met briefly with Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, and told reporters afterward that the hotly debated missile defense plan simply did not come up.

"I guess I would have to say, honestly, I was somewhat surprised," said Gates, who is attending a two-day meeting of NATO defense ministers here. "I don't know how to read it, to be honest."

The silence came a day after other Russian officials blasted the U.S. plan, and warned that the new sites could be targeted.

Gates said he did not bring the matter up in his session with Serdyukov because "I felt I'd been pretty explicit yesterday in the session so I didn't feel the need to." Instead, Gates said, they talked about plans for an upcoming meeting between U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

During a session on Thursday, Gates told the allies that the U.S. will proceed with its plans for a radar system in the Czech Republic to watch for missile threats and 10 interceptor rockets in Poland to shoot down any missiles.

He flatly dismissed any notion that Russia's push for joint use of a radar station in Azerbaijan could replace the broader U.S. plan.

He also said he doubts there could be any agreement with Russia by next month, when Bush meets with Putin at Kennebunkport, Maine.

"I was very explicit in the (NATO) meeting that we saw the Azeri radar as an additional capability, that we intended to proceed with the X-Band radar in the Czech Republic," Gates told reporters Thursday.

Russian officials earlier this week called for a freeze on the U.S. plan, arguing that it would undermine Russia's nuclear deterrent. And they reportedly issued threats against the planned sites in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Meanwhile, NATO ordered its military experts to draw up plans for a possible short-range missile defense system to protect nations on the alliance's southern flank that would be left exposed by proposed U.S. anti-missile units in central Europe.

According to U.S. and NATO officials, the addition of the European bases to anti-missile installations in North America would protect most of Europe from the threat of long-range attack from Iran or elsewhere in the Middle East. But it would leave Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria and parts of Romania exposed.

To fill that gap, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said NATO experts would produce a report by February on short-range anti-missile defenses "that can be bolted on to the overall missile defense system as it would be installed by the United States."

Russia has threatened to retaliate against the U.S. plans by pulling out of a key arms control treaty and pointing warheads at Europe for the first time since the Cold War. However, at last week's G-8 summit, Putin seemed to take a more open approach, suggesting Russia could cooperate with the West on an anti-missile radar base in Azerbaijan.

In other comments Friday, Gates said he told the allies that the U.S. would keep 20 of its helicopters in Kandahar, Afghanistan, for an extra six months, which would be until January, since the NATO nations have no aircraft to replace them.

But he said he warned the ministers that he "expected the allies to come up with a solution by that time, in terms of helicopters that have the capability to operate in Afghanistan."

He said a number of allies during a late Thursday session offered to provide additional training teams, reconstruction teams and some other types of helicopters, for the Afghan war. And he said one country offered to provide a combat battalion.

NATO has said it needs four battalions, so this would only partly meet that need.

Gates added that several allies announced they will remove restrictions on their forces that have made some operations difficult. That move, he said, "was a very important contribution in my view."

Some countries restrict their troops from participating in particular missions or from being deployed to the more dangerous southern and eastern regions.

NATO spokesman James Appathurai said seven allied nations had agreed to set up more embedded training units alongside about 20 already operating. France offered to create three, with a total of 150 instructors. Italy, Canada, Latvia, Poland, Romania and Slovakia also committed training units. The offers, however, fell short of the alliance's plans to build up the national army so it can replace the close to 50,000 international troops in Afghanistan.

There are about 26,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.