Romania's president said Tuesday his country will host missile interceptors as part of a planned U.S. shield over Europe.
Traian Basescu announced that Bucharest had agreed to build the interceptor site at the Deveselu former air base near the Bulgarian border, in a remote agricultural region. Romania already had agreed to host the interceptors, but the location had not been decided. The president, a staunch ally of the U.S., said it would give Romania "the highest security level in its history."
The announcement prompted a strong complaint from Russia, which sees European missile defense as a potential encroachment.
Basescu earlier met with U.S. undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher and she traveled to the site, some 125 miles (200 kilometers) southwest of Bucharest.
Romanian and U.S. officials later held a ceremony at the air base, which is no longer in use. It was built with Soviet help in 1952, when the first MIG 15s landed there.
"We are confident that Deveselu is an excellent site and it will prove to be the optimal location for" the missile defense system "to perform its critical mission," said Lt. Gen. John D. Gardner, deputy commander of the U.S. Forces in Europe (EUCOM).
An average of 200 troops will be based at the site, which can host a maximum of 500, Basescu said. The base, which will remain under Romanian command, is a few kilometers (miles) outside Deveselu, a town of about 3,000.
Basescu said the site was approved late Monday by the country's Supreme Defense Council. Local officials were informed and gave their agreement, he said.
Basescu said the remote base was chosen because it fulfilled all of the 120 requirements needed to guarantee the full security of the system.
The Romanian site is part two of a four-part plan that the Obama administration outlined in 2009, when it shelved a Bush administration plan to use long-range interceptors based in Poland to counter a threat from Iran and North Korea. That plan was opposed by Russia, which worried that the system could target Russian warheads or undermine the Kremlin's deterrence strategy.
The Obama administration has said its plan _ designed to counter the threat of short-to-medium range missiles _ would be more effective and able to counter a threat from Iran earlier. But critics have said that the new plan caved in to Russian demands and have doubted whether the administration could build an effective shield in the timetable promised.
Russia's foreign ministry criticized the Romanian decision sharply.
"Regrettably, we find that practical steps in the creation of the European segment of the U.S. global missile defense are being taken regardless of the Russia-U.S. missile defense dialogue," the ministry said in a statement reported on Russian news agencies.
"Moscow is monitoring the events very closely, as, in our opinion, the prospective missile defense system may create risks for the Russian strategic nuclear deterrence forces in the future," it said.
The Czech republic is also negotiating a plan with the United States to place a warning center to gather and analyze information from satellite sensors "to detect missiles aiming at NATO territory," Prime Minister Petr Necas said last year.
Defense Ministry spokesman Jan Pejsek said Tuesday the negotiations with the U.S. have not been completed yet and it's not clear when that could happen.
The U.S. administration's plan calls for placing land- and sea-based radars and interceptors in several European locations over the next decade and upgrading them over time. As the first part of the plan, the United States in March deployed to the Mediterranean the USS Monterey, a ship equipped to detect and shoot down missiles.
Each phase of the four-part plan calls for a more sophisticated and capable interceptor, culminating at the end of the decade with the deployment in Poland of more advanced interceptors that still are in development.
Basescu also said that the country's top defense body had approved a U.S. request to use an airport near the Black Sea air base of Mihail Kogalniceanu in eastern Romania for the transiting of troops and equipment to Iraq and Afghanistan and from Iraq to Europe.
Romania has about 1,700 troops serving in Afghanistan.
Associated Press writers Alina Wolfe-Murray and Alison Mutler in Bucharest, Jim Heintz in Moscow and Desmond Butler in Washington contributed to this report.