BUCHAREST, Dec 6 – Romania and the United States signed a deal on Tuesday to open U.S. military bases in the former Soviet bloc country, naming an airfield entangled in controversy over alleged CIA jails in Europe as one location.
The new bases are part of a shift in the Pentagon’s focus from Cold War European facilities towards smaller bases closer to hot spots such as the Middle East.
But the deal comes at a sensitive time for both Washington and Bucharest, following allegations that the U.S. intelligence agency CIA has been running secret prisons in Europe, possibly in Romania and Poland.
Romanian President Traian Basescu said one future U.S. base will be located at the Mihail Kogalniceanu airfield near the Black Sea, which U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch has said could have been already used as a secret CIA jail.
But U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in Bucharest to sign the deal, defended the agreement.
“It will be debated in parliament. It will be clear … this is a base where the intention is that we have access for training … to be able to do the sorts of activities that we are doing together in Iraq and Afghanistan,” she said.
Rice has not directly addressed the prison allegations and both Romania and Poland deny them.
The Black Sea country is grateful to Washington for supporting its bid to enter NATO and has been a staunch ally of U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Once opened, the bases in Romania will be the first U.S. military facility in the former Soviet bloc countries of eastern Europe and Bucharest hopes they will bring new investment to the poor European Union candidate.
According to a statement released by Rice’s travelling party, a 100 U.S. personnel will be permanently stationed at the training headquarters in Mihail Kogalniceanu.
A senior U.S. official also said up to 1,500 U.S. troops could be rotated through Romania and possibly 1,000 more troops through Bulgaria, which hopes to sign its own base deal early next year.
Washington is also holding talks with Poland about establishing a military base there to shoot down long-range missiles fired from the Middle East or Africa that could threaten Europe, the Pentagon said in November.
The U.S. aims to pull about 70,000 troops out of Europe and Asia during the next decade.