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Britain backs U.S. missile shield

The system would use orbiting satellites and radar tracking stations.

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LONDON, England -- Britain has given support to the United States' planned missile defense shield, allowing Washington to use a key radar base in northern England despite widespread opposition within the ruling Labour Party.

Washington asked Britain in December to approve the upgrading of early warning radar systems at Fylingdales to allow its missile defence programme to go ahead.

"I have... come to the preliminary conclusion that the answer to the U.S. request must be 'yes' and that we should agree to the upgrade proposed," UK Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon told parliament.

Hoon insisted he was giving parliament a say before the government officially replied to Washington. But there will be no vote on the issue.

Many in Prime Minister Tony Blair's ruling Labour Party, already worried about British involvement in a possible Iraq war, are fiercely opposed to the system, arguing a missile defence shield could spark a new global arms race.

They say that, while protecting the U.S. it might simply serve to make Britain a target for a potential aggressor.

A former UK junior defence minister accused the government of rushing to accept every "crackpot idea" from President Bush's administration and said it would put Britain on the front line.

"This slavish devotion to American policy in this area adds further to global destabilisation," said Peter Kilfoyle.

Hoon disagreed, saying the government judged it would not significantly increase the threat of attack on Britain.

"The hard fact is a number of states of concern are making major investments in developing ever-longer ballistic missiles," he said. "Once a missile is in the air, it is unthinkable that anyone could not want us to be in a position to shoot it down."

In June, the United States unilaterally withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty in order to build a missile defence system, which is prohibited under ABM. (Full story)

The system, dubbed "Son of Star Wars" after an initiative pioneered by former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, depends on intercepting an incoming missile with another missile.

North Korea warned on Wednesday that it was ready to take more "defensive" measures against the U.S. that would go beyond its decision last week to quit a global treaty preventing the spread of atomic weapons.

Hoon said if Pyongyang ended its flight test ban it could test a missile with the potential to reach Europe within weeks.

"It would represent an invaluable extra insurance against the development of a still uncertain but potentially catastrophic threat to the citizens of this country," Hoon said of the missile defense system.

"It would be... irresponsible for the government to leave the United Kingdom without a route map to acquire a defence against this potential threat."

He said the costs would be borne by the United States.

The U.S. has also asked Denmark to grant permission for the use of Thule air base, northwest of Greenland.

Greenland's foreign minister promised an answer by the summer but Greenland's coalition government collapsed on Wednesday -- with U.S. use of the Thule base one of the catalysts to the government's fall. (Full story)

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