Monday, October 02, 2006

U.S. military withdrawal end of an era in Iceland

By Sarah Edmonds
Saturday, September 30, 2006; 6:14 PM

KEFLAVIK NAVAL AIR STATION, Iceland (Reuters) - The United States withdrew its last 30 military personnel from Iceland on Saturday as it shut a naval air base that in its Cold War heyday was the sixth largest town in the island nation.

The closure leaves Iceland without home-based defences and ends a U.S. military presence that has continued, with a brief late 1940s hiatus, since World War Two.

In a low-key ceremony before a U.S. Navy jet bore the remaining base residents back to the United States, a handful of U.S. military personnel faced Icelandic police as the Icelandic and American flags snapped briskly in the wind.

Both flags were lowered, and base commander Captain Mark Laughton presented the folded Stars and Stripes to the U.S. ambassador. Icelandic police then sent their country's flag back up its flagpole to fly alone.

The island nation of 300,000 has no army of its own and while most residents sounded unworried about the lack of visible defences, some expressed concern at the swift U.S. withdrawal.

Iceland learned in March that the base was to close.

"I think that says something about what they think about defending us," said Johann Stefansson, who owns a pizza restaurant in the town of Keflavik.

U.S. officials said this was the inevitable end of the Cold War chapter in the U.S.-Icelandic relationship. The two countries have signed an agreement that includes a U.S. promise to rush to Iceland's aid if needed.

"The kind of dangers that the people ... at the base worked to counter are no longer critical in the 21st century," U.S. Ambassador to Iceland Carol van Voorst said, adding that the two nations would still work closely to combat terrorism and crime.

"If we had something of a conventional threat, I can tell you we'd be here fast," she added. "We have very mobile and agile forces now and we can move men and materiel very fast."


In an interview with Reuters on Friday, Icelandic Prime Minister Geir Haarde expressed similar confidence.

"We don't perceive a threat from any other country in the old sense," he said.

"(U.S.) fighters can get up here pretty fast," he said, then added: "Of course obviously longer than before, but still I am sure sufficient in case there is a danger."

The base on this windswept Icelandic peninsula housed some 6,000 at its peak, including military, families and local staff. From 1980 to 1991, its fighters intercepted some 130 Soviet bombers a year.

After his second summit with Mikhail Gorbachev ended in disappointment in 1986, U.S. President Ronald Reagan celebrated Keflavik's importance in a speech there.

Before Saturday's ceremony, U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Randy Weirs, commander of the Iceland Defense Force, drove through empty streets that once hummed with activity.

The base is a town in itself, complete with a primary school with a 650-student capacity, a high school, fast-food restaurants and the only baseball fields in Iceland.

Iceland is looking at ways to re-use the residential buildings, perhaps as a campus or health facility, while businesspeople are eyeing the hangars and service buildings for commercial development.


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10:42 AM  

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