Blair `understands' US need for missile defense

AP , LONDON

Sat, Feb 17, 2001 - Page 1

British Prime Minister Tony Blair is offering tentative support for US President George W. Bush's proposal to build a national missile defense system, a plan that some critics worry could spark a new arms race.

"This is definitely in the box marked `handle with care' on all sides," Blair told Forbes magazine in an interview posted on its Web site on Thursday.

"It is a very sensitive issue ... My own judgment is that provided we handle it with care, there is a way through which meets America's objectives and other people's concerns," he added.

The interview is slated to appear in the March 5 issue of the magazine's international edition.

Blair plans to travel to Washington to meet with Bush at Camp David next week and the two are expected to discuss the new president's decision to deploy a limited ballistic missile defense shield.

Blair has been reluctant to take a position on the missile defense proposal, and leaders of the opposition Conservative party have accused him of vacillating. Conservative leader William Hague supports the plan.

Critics believe the missile shield would spell an end to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM)treaty, and some European leaders agree with Russian warnings that it could touch off a new arms race. China also views plans for a US missile shield as a threat to its security.

"I understand totally America's desire to make sure that its people are properly protected," Blair said. "I also understand the concerns people have about the ABM treaty and the desire to preserve it."

"The initial signs of the Bush administration [are] that they are very sensitive as well to the issue that if there is missile defense in the US, how does that impact defense in Europe?" Blair added. "These are things we need to discuss in a serious and sensible way, and I am sure we will."

Members of Blair's cabinet have urged Washington to talk to Russian leaders before going ahead with plans for the missile system, which Bush administration officials have said would also be available to defend America's allies.

During a visit to Washington last week, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook refused to endorse the program directly.

Bush has said the shield is necessary to protect the US from attacks by countries such as North Korea, Iran or Iraq.