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US has 'scrapped plan for missile shield in eastern Europe'

Moving to avoid a rift with Moscow, Barack Obama has "all but abandoned" plans to locate parts of a controversial US missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, a leading Polish newspaper claimed yesterday.

The Warsaw daily Gazeta Wyborcza said that the Pentagon has been asked to explore switching planned interceptor rocket sites from the two east European states to Israel, Turkey, the Balkans or to mobile launchers on warships. Asked about the claim, a Pentagon spokesman last night said the missile shield plans were still being reviewed. "No final decisions have been made regarding missile defence in Europe" he said.

The threats and rhetoric surrounding the missile defence plans, a key plank of defence policy under the Bush administration, contributed as much as any other issue to the souring of relations between Moscow and Washington in recent years.

In 2007, then-President Vladimir Putin compared the plans to the Cuban Missile Crisis of the 1960s. He warned that if the plan went ahead, Russia would be forced to point nuclear missiles at European cities. Since then, the Kremlin has brushed aside repeated US claims that the shield would be aimed not at Russia but at Iran, North Korea and other rogue states. Moscow has insisted that the shield's deployment would compromise Russian strategic security.

With the Obama administration's promise to "reset" relations with Russia, came the President's decision to launch a strategic review of the defence shield. Controversy erupted earlier this year when rumours surfaced of a secret letter written by Mr Obama to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev allegedly hinting that the White House would back away if Russia offered help on reining in Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Publicly, both sides have insisted that there is no horse-trading to be done over the issue. At a summit in Moscow last month Mr Obama promised only to take Russia's concerns into account. This was nevertheless a marked change of rhetoric. The Bush administration had repeatedly stated that what Russia thought was irrelevant.