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Details Elusive On Romania Missile Offer

Romanian President Traian Basescu (right) says the topic came up during an October visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.

BUCHAREST (Reuters) -- President Traian Basescu says Romania's top defense body has approved a plan to deploy U.S. interceptor missiles in Romania as part of a missile shield to protect Europe.

The announcement February 4 was unexpected, and Basescu gave few details.

In Washington, a State Department spokesman said the facilities were due to become operational by 2015 and were aimed at defending against "current and emerging ballistic missile threats from Iran."

The announcement is part of the revamped U.S. missile defense approach taken by President Barack Obama since he scrapped a Bush-era plan for a radar site and interceptor rockets in the Czech Republic and Poland.

The missile shield has angered eastern Europe's former Cold War master Russia, who sees it as a threat to its own nuclear arsenal and has bristled at what it says is Washington's meddling in its sphere of influence.

A Kremlin spokesman declined to comment and said the foreign ministry would issue a statement on February 5.

Basescu said the Supreme Defense Council, Romania's top military and security authority, had approved a U.S. proposal to include Romania in a system against "potential attacks with ballistic missiles or medium-range rockets."

The U.S. offer was brought to Bucharest by Ellen Taucher, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control who leads a team of American experts, Basescu said.

The plan's specifics, now under discussion with U.S. partners, would need parliamentary approval in order to come into force, he said.

In past years, parliament has solidly backed participation in U.S. and NATO-led military ventures, including Romanian troop deployments to hotspots like Iraq and Afghanistan.

The leu currency was little changed after the announcement, trading at about 4.1390 per euro.

In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley repeated that the new missile strategy was aimed at countering threats from Iran and should not worry Moscow.

"As we have made clear over and over again, this is not a capability that is directed at Russia," Crowley told a news briefing. He added that discussions were under way with other countries about further moves to implement the missile plan.

Obama's decision to scrap the Bush plan disappointed both Prague and Warsaw.

Poland has expressed a readiness to take part in the new project and could potentially host some of the SM-3 interceptors that target short and medium-range missiles. But officials have made no further public comment in recent months on the issue, which Crowley said was "still under discussion."

Foreign Minister Teodor Baconschi said the plan was first presented to Basescu during a visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden to Bucharest in October but was not made public.

Unlike some other EU states, popular support for U.S. military policy is very high in Romania. It hosts a small base at the Black Sea and training facilities, part of a Pentagon shift from large Cold War-era centers in western Europe toward smaller installations nearer hot spots such as the Middle East.

Basescu said the participation of Romania, a European Union and NATO member of 22 million perched in the southeast corner of the continent, was not meant to threaten Moscow.

"The new system is not against Russia. I want to categorically stress this, Romania [will] not host a system against Russia, but against other threats," he said.

Obama's revamped plan, unveiled in September, includes land-and sea-based missile systems in and around the Gulf to defend against what it calls a growing Iranian missile threat.