Douglas visit provokes row over 'Star Wars'

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Indy Politics

The Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence were last night accused of being "hopelessly split" over American moves to create a new "Star Wars" nuclear programme.

Both the Tories and anti-nuclear campaigners claimed that the two departments were pulling in different directions on the controversial National Missile Defence (NMD) plans being devised in Washington.

The controversy emerged after the film star Michael Douglas met Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, yesterday to call on Britain to take a strong lead in a review of nuclear treaties later this month in New York.

Mr Douglas said Russia and China had warned the US that the "Star Wars" missile system would cancel a missile treaty and could increase confrontation. Peace groups claimed this week that Pentagon documents named RAF Fylingdales in North Yorkshire as an intricate part of the multi-billion dollar National Missile Defence (NMD) system.

Peter Hain, the Foreign Office minister, said on Monday night that he did not want the United States acting unilaterally on the programme. "I don't like the idea of a Star Wars programme, limited or unlimited. But what we need to find out is exactly what the Americans are proposing, this new concept of national missile defence," he told the BBC's Newsnight. "Any decision it [the US] makes must be done in close co-operation and agreement with the Russians, because they are party to the anti-ballistic missile treaty."

The Government wanted the US to comply with the comprehensive test ban treaty and to consult other nations before reviving or renegotiating the anti-ballistic missile treaty, he said. A spokesman for the Foreign Office said Mr Hain's views were shared by Mr Cook. "Both Peter and Robin Cook share concerns, but we have to have good relations with the US. This is in the spirit of critical engagement."

However, Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, took a much more cautious line on the NMD programme this week, reflecting the MoD's increasing acceptance of the idea. "Obviously there is a vigorous discussion taking place among Nato allies now about what should happen in response to NMD. We would obviously look at any specific requests that we receive very carefully," he said.

Iain Duncan Smith, the Tory Defence spokesman, said: "It is the Foreign Office versus the MoD on this, that is clear. They are hopelessly split."

Dan Plesch, director of the British American Security Information Council, an arms control campaigning group which has helped to organise Mr Douglas's visit, said plans were well advanced for the US to use British bases as an integral part of a planned anti-missile system. "Clearly the MoD are much more bought into the 'Star Wars' line," he said. "There's a good deal more caution in the Foreign [Office]. The Foreign ministers are talking to the rest of the planet on this and the rest of the planet thinks it is barking mad."