Russia has denied news reports that the emergency relief center it is creating in Serbia will be used to spy on neighboring Romania, where U.S. anti-ballistic missile interceptors are likely to be installed.
Those reports began two years ago when Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced that Serbia and Russia had agreed to create the joint "emergency response center" at the airport in Nis, central Serbia.
But during a ceremony opening it on Monday, Sergey Shoigu, Russia's minister for emergency situations, said the speculation that Russia is creating a military installation in Serbia is "a pure fabrication."
Shoigu said the center will house emergency relief experts and their equipment, and fight major forest fires, flooding, earthquakes and other natural disasters in the Balkans.
Romania has agreed to install anti-ballistic missile interceptors as part of the revamped U.S. missile shield to replace a Bush-era plan for interceptors in Poland and radar in the Czech Republic.
"I'm inviting all those (countries) which suspect that this will become a Russian base to join our de-mining teams," Shoigu said. "They have planted the explosive devices in the first place," he added, referring to the U.S.-led airstrikes against Serbia in 1999 that left the Nis region infested with cluster bombs.
Serbian Interior Minister Ivica Dacic said it would be Serbia's sovereign right to allow foreign military installations on its territory but that the center will only serve a humanitarian purpose.
"Shoigu and I are not doing anything secret," Dacic said. "This humanitarian center is a part of the European mechanism to deal with emergency situations."
Serbia has tried to remain militarily neutral by refusing to join NATO or a Russian defense initiative.