Agreement reached for U.S. to use bases in Bulgaria

Secretary of State Rice to sign agreement this week

SOFIA, Bulgaria — Bulgarian officials have approved an agreement for military cooperation with the United States, allowing American troops to deploy to military facilities in the Balkan country.

Under the deal, up to 2,500 U.S. troops can be deployed in the country on a rotational basis.

“Their number can be increased to 5,000 for a 30-day period while the rotation is in progress,” Foreign Minister Ivailo Kalfin told journalists.

The agreement could be signed this week. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to attend an informal meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia.

The agreement would give U.S. troops access to three bases in southern Bulgaria for training and logistical operations. The locations are the Bezmer and the Graf Ignatievo air bases and the Novo Selo training area.

Navy Cmdr. Joe Carpenter, a Pentagon spokesman, said the agreement “is not solely to the benefit of the United States. It allows us to train and operate together [with the Bulgarians], who are a NATO ally. It will help them transform their military and improve their capabilities within NATO.”

A difficult issue during the negotiations involved jurisdiction over any crimes committed by U.S. military personnel in Bulgaria, The Washington Times reported Monday.

“The Bulgarians waive the right to primary jurisdiction, but, in cases of particular importance, they recall the waiver and reassert their jurisdiction,” a senior U.S. official told The Times. He noted that most crimes committed by U.S. forces abroad “are fairly minor.”

Kalfin explained also that weapons of mass destruction would not be deployed to the facilities used by U.S. troops.

“The agreements between the United States and Russia on nondeployment of nuclear weapons in the new NATO Member States guarantee that there will be no nuclear weapons in Bulgaria,” Kalfin said.

Defense Minister Veselin Bliznakov has said the first U.S. troops were expected to arrive “at the end of this year or early next year.”

The Bulgarians are hoping the agreement will generate employment in the country, but may be disappointed, The Times noted.

“We don’t plan on having that many permanent workers,” the senior U.S. official told the paper. “But Bulgarian companies are eligible for contracts for services if they meet our requirements and standards.”

The agreement, which has to be ratified by the Bulgarian parliament before entering into force, runs for 10 years and will be automatically renewed. Either side can terminate it with one year’s notice.

The possibility that U.S. troops would use a country with a large Muslim minority as a base for an attack on a Muslim nation, such as Iran or Syria, has provoked vocal opposition in Bulgaria. A nationalist party represented in the parliament plans to stage massive protests against the agreement during Rice’s visit.

Rice signed a similar agreement with Romania in December. It has been ratified by the parliament’s lower chamber and is currently awaiting approval by the Senate, said Sorin Ducaru, the Romanian ambassador to Washington.

Stars and Stripes reporter Lisa Burgess contributed to this report from the Pentagon.