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Daily Archives: April 7, 2008

Bush, Putin agree to cooperate on missile defence

by Christopher Boian*

US President George W. Bush hailed a "breakthrough" yesterday at his final summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin after they agreed to consider a joint anti-missile defence system with Europe.
"I happen to believe this is a significant breakthrough," Bush told journalists after the summit at Putin's residence near the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi.
A joint statement issued after the talks reiterated that Russia "does not agree" with the US deployment of an anti-missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.
However, the declaration noted that Moscow saw US confidence-building measures as "important and useful" and that Russia shared the United States' "interest in creating a system for responding" to potential missile threats.
Crucially, the declaration held out the possibility of Moscow and Washington working together on the anti-missile question — one of the most divisive areas over the last year of increasingly tumultuous relations.
"Both sides expressed their interest in creating a system for responding to potential missile threats in which Russia and the United States and Europe will participate as equal partners," the declaration said.
This was the last summit between Bush, whose term ends at the start of next year, and Putin, who hands over to Dmitry Medvedev on May 7.
Putin's acknowledgement that Washington has taken steps to defusing the bitter row marked an important thaw in the long-running dispute.
Moscow has until now dismissed US claims to be setting up the shield against emerging military powers such as Iran, saying that the system was instead aimed at Russia.
At a joint press conference, Putin said he felt "cautious optimism concerning a final accord" on the US anti-missile plan. "It seems to me this is possible."
Bush said that "Russia appreciates confidence building and transparency measure we have proposed and have declared that they will be important in influencing Russian concerns."
Bush also met in Sochi with Medvedev, who was eased in as Putin's successor in an election this March that was carefully controlled by the authorities. He has never held elected office and has little foreign policy experience.
Bush said he looked forward to getting to know Medvedev "so we'll be able to work through common problems." The Russian president-elect said he wanted "to act so that our relations develop further without interruption."
Observers say Putin and Bush were keen to end their presidential relationship on a high note after eight years that have seen NATO expand closer to Russia's borders and growing tension over what critics say is Putin's authoritarian rule.
The pair were as friendly as ever before the talks, taking a walk by the sea at sunset on Saturday after an informal dinner at Putin's seaside residence.
"We have met a lot over the past years, I have come to respect you," Bush told Putin when the two met yesterday morning. "You are not afraid to tell me what's on your mind and after it is all said and done we shake hands."
The US anti-missile plan foresees installing interceptor rockets in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic to guard against potential attacks from what Washington terms "rogue states," notably Iran.
Russia counters that Iran poses no missile threat to the United States and says it views the shield as a threat to its own offensive capability, although US officials dismiss this, given that Russia's huge nuclear arsenal would quickly overwhelm the limited US facility.
The United States says it has made "forward-leaning" concessions to ease Russia's concerns, including allowing Russian liaison officers access to system sites in Poland and the Czech Republic.
"The Russians said that these were useful and important," US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters last week on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Bucharest.
Another major dispute is over expansion of NATO, which Moscow sees as intrusion in its traditional sphere of influence, but Western countries say brings unity and stability to the European continent.
Russia has warned that NATO membership for ex-Soviet Ukraine and Georgia — whose leaderships are keen to enter the alliance — would be a "serious strategic mistake" that would undermine European security.
Putin was credited with a diplomatic coup last week when the NATO summit refused to put Ukraine and Georgia on a formal track for alliance membership, despite vigorous pleas from Bush.
But no sooner was that decision announced than 26-nation alliance said it had no doubt that the two states would be taken in later.
Medvedev, Putin's hand-picked successor, has signalled that he plans no major departures from the Putin policy line — a point he has underscored with plans to make Putin his first prime minister.


Muslim graves desecrated in French WWI cemetery

Vandals desecrated 148 Muslim graves in a French World War I cemetery, hanging a pig's head from one tombstone and daubing slogans insulting France's Muslim justice minister, officials said.
The attack Saturday night on the Notre Dame de Lorette cemetery, in Ablain-Saint-Nazaire near Arras, comes almost exactly a year after neo-Nazi vandals scrawled swastikas on 52 of Muslim graves at the same cemetery.
"The slogans directly target Islam and they gravely insult Rachida Dati, the justice minister," Arras prosecutor Jean-Pierre Valensi, said yesterday. Dati is the daughter of north African immigrants.
Valensi told how a pig's head was hung from one of the graves.
Prime Minister Francois Fillon voiced "outrage" at the attack.
Fillon "condemns in the strongest terms these revolting acts that insult the memory of all veterans," said an official statement.
Around 100 French gendarmes were at the site to gather evidence.
France's largest military necropolis, the Notre Dame de Lorette cemetery commemorates tens of thousands of victims of a series of long and bloody battles for control of northern France at the start of World War I.
Two youths aged 18 and 21 were sentenced to a year in jail over last April's attack on the cemetery. A 16-year-old youth received a six-week jail sentence.