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Azerbaijani Radar A Looming Presence For Nervous Inhabitants

The Gabala radar station in Azerbaijan. Gabala has a range of 6,000 kilometres (3,700 miles), capable of monitoring the Middle East, Asia and parts of Africa.
by Michael Mainville
Gabala, Azerbaijan (AFP) Jun 08, 2007
For the people who live in its shadow, the towering Gabala radar station in Azerbaijan is more than just a bargaining chip in US-Russian wrangles over missile defence. A product of the Cold War, the station was originally used to monitor US military activity around the Indian Ocean and continues to be operated by Russia.

On Thursday it was thrust into the spotlight when Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed to US President George W. Bush that the two sides jointly use the radar to guard against attack from Iran, immediately south of Azerbaijan.

One Azerbaijani newspaper, Musavat, suggested that would bring this country a step closer to becoming a battleground between the United States and Iran.

But the people living in the vicinity of the hulking 16-storey concrete slab have more immediate worries.

Set incongruously amid the picturesque valleys of this mountainous region, the radar and substantial Russian military presence protecting it is both a source of jobs -- but also concern that its electromagnetic radiation may represent a health risk.

"Without the station, many people wouldn't be able to feed their families," said Elkhin Ibrahim, a 23-year-old resident of the nearby village of Bugamili, which lies 200 kilometres (125 miles) from the Azerbaijani capital Baku.

Russia leases Gabala from the Azerbaijani government and the base provides up to 600 much-needed jobs for local people, who work alongside about 1,500 Russian personnel.

But another local resident, Baba Alitov, 70, nonetheless warned that the station was "dangerous".

"Even the trees are dying from the radiation," he said. "It's difficult for farmers to sell fruit and vegetables at the market if people know they are from close to the station."

An Azerbaijani non-governmental organisation has claimed the base is responsible for an increase in cases of infertility and birth defects among the human and animal population living nearby.

Backed by the snow-peaked Caucasus Mountains, the radar looms over ramshackle farms. The roads around about are often clogged by herds of cattle and sheep and sometimes blocked by horse-drawn carts.

The station, which is visible from several kilometres (miles) away, was put into operation in 1984 as one of the most powerful radars in the Soviet Union's missile attack early warning system.

Gabala fed a steady stream of information to installations in Moscow and had a range of 6,000 kilometres (3,700 miles), capable of monitoring the Middle East, Asia and parts of Africa.

Recent images of the top secret installation shown on Russian television on Friday showed officers hunched over switches and staring into monitors, surrounded by Soviet-era telephones.

Russian forces refused to give up the station when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. For nearly a decade, Russia continued to operate the base without any formal agreement on its status.

Under pressure from the Azerbaijani government however, Russia agreed in 2002 to sign a 10-year lease for the facility, paying seven million dollars (5.2 million euros) a year for its use.

Since independence, Azerbaijan has also sought closer ties with the United States, which has built two mobile radar stations in the north and the south of the country to monitor the Caspian Sea.

Azerbaijan's closer ties with Washington have hurt relations with Russia.

In February, Azerbaijan said it was considering renegotiating the terms of Russia's lease on the station, or even revoking it, in a struggle over Azerbaijani gas exports to Russia.

Few local residents seemed aware on Friday of Putin's proposal to share the base with the US and many said that who operates the station would make no difference to their lives.

"The Russians, the Americans, it doesn't really matter to us," said Azin Hasanov, 46. "What we think isn't important anyway, they'll make these decisions far away and we'll have to live with them."

earlier related report
Azerbaijan officials welcome Putin missile plan, critics sceptical
Baku (AFP) Jun 08 - A proposal by Russian President Vladimir Putin for joint US-Russian use of a radar in Azerbaijan for missile defence stirred up conflicting reactions on Friday in this increasingly Westernised ex-Soviet republic.

Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mamedyarov welcomed Putin's proposal, made at the Group of Eight summit on Thursday, saying that joint US-American use of the Gabala radar in northern Azerbaijan would increase security for his country, which is located between Russia and Iran.

He told reporters: "Azerbaijan is ready for such negotiations... This will bring more stability to the region, where the situation will become more predictable."

Putin's proposal was intended to counter US plans to set up a radar in the Czech Republic and interceptor missiles in Poland.

US officials say that the system they are proposing could help to counter a potential threat from Iran and North Korea.

But Russia suspects the US project is directed against its own territory.

Mamedyarov denied that the plan could damage Azerbaijan's relations with its giant southern neighbour Iran.

Meanwhile the opposition Musavat newspaper was scornful of the proposal, saying: "All this is a fragment of the plan by the Christian world concerning the mythical 'Islamic threat.'

"They're trying to turn Azerbaijan into the main battleground in a possible future war between the United States and Iran. Russia and the United States have been acting together since 2003," the commentary said.

But Baku-based defence analyst Azad Isazade said the United States was unlikely to be interested in the Azerbaijani radar.

"This radar station is of no interest to the United States as the whole US anti-missile system is based on satellite observation," he said, adding that in his view Washington's missile defence plans were mainly directed at a possible Russian threat.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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