Portuguese worried by US pressure for bases

Portugal is showing signs of growing unease over United States attempts to use this country's strategic position for military commitments outside the NATO area.

But the Portuguese need US military and economic aid so much that they have little choice but to consent to Washington's requests for bases and other military facilities.

Negotiations between the two countries began last December. They now are frozen because of the resignation of the Portuguese government. No agreement can be signed until after the April 25 general elections.

In the meantime, American use of the Lajes air base in Portugal's Azores Islands, halfway between the US and continental Europe, has been extended for another year. But both the outgoing government and the Socialist opposition have very mixed feelings about the latest US proposals.

What the United States wants is to transform Portugal, in effect, into a forward base for its Rapid Deployment Force (RDF). This involves improving the facilities at Lajes itself, having a fleet of KC-10 in-flight refuelling tankers stationed in the West German air base at Beja in southern Portugal, and setting up other facilities at two other NATO airports - Montijo outside Lisbon and Cortegaca outside Porto.

During the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Washington used the Lajes airbase as a stepping stone in mounting an arms airlift to Israel. Lisbon then was hit by the Arab oil embargo.

This time Lisbon has been saying in negotiations that (1) the US should not have any permanent RDF facilities in Portugal, and (2) US use of Portuguese bases to intervene in regional conflicts must be subordinated to Portuguese national interests. In other words, don't count on Lajes to get to the Gulf unless we are sure it won't affect our oil supplies.

But can Lisbon afford to take such a stand at a time of severe budgetary restrictions? The Portuguese admit they don't have much room to maneuver, partly because the US is playing them off against the Moroccans and Spaniards who have similar, perhaps cheaper facilities to offer.

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