A team of US military experts was in Azerbaijan on Tuesday to inspect a mammoth Soviet-era radar station that Russia is pushing as an alternative to contentious anti-missile sites in central Europe.
Moscow has offered to share the Gabala station, which it leases from ex-Soviet Azerbaijan, in exchange for the US dropping plans to deploy elements of a missile defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Relations between Moscow and Washington have been deeply strained by the missile defence plans, with the Kremlin threatening to re-deploy nuclear missiles if the US forges ahead with the project.
The Pentagon delegation arrived in the Azerbaijani capital Baku early Tuesday, said a US official speaking on condition of anonymity.
Headed by Brigadier General Patrick O'Reilly, deputy director of the US Missile Defence Agency, the six-person team was due to visit the station Tuesday afternoon in the company of Azerbaijani and Russian military experts, the official said.
Russian officials had said three-way consultations would also be held between Azerbaijani, Russian and US experts in Baku. But US officials said the visit was only technical and that no negotiations would be held.
Azerbaijan is located just north of Iran and Russia insists the station would be more practical than sites in Europe.
A hulking 16-storey concrete slab set in the mountains of northern Azerbaijan, the Gabala station was put into operation in 1984 as one of the most powerful radars in the Soviet Union's missile attack early warning system.
Gabala feeds a steady stream of information to installations in Moscow and has a range of 6,000 kilometres (3,700 miles), capable of monitoring the Middle East, Asia and parts of Africa.
Following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the Azerbaijani government agreed to lease the station to Russia until 2012.
Last Mod: 18 Eylül 2007, 13:22