LONDON--Europe's first cruise missiles arrived yesterday at a U.S. air base west of London, provoking outcries from Britain's opposition lawmakers and anti-nuclear protesters who called the step "a major tragedy."
But the British government said it could easily withdraw the low-flying missiles if U.S. and Soviet negotiators reach an arms control agreement in Geneva in talks scheduled to last six more weeks.
Just after dawn, a U.S. Air Force C-141 Star lifter transport landed at Greenham Common in the countryside 50 miles west of London. Armed soldiers ringed the plane as helicopters hovered and workers unloaded two crates containing the U.S. missiles.
Several hours later, Defense Secretary Michael Heseltine informed Parliament of the missiles arrival, shouting to make himself heard above opposition lawmakers who screamed "shame! shame!"
Heseltine did not specify how many nuclear-tripped missiles were in the first shipment.
The missiles are the first of 572 cruise and Pershing 2s that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization plans to deploy starting next month of the Geneva talks remain stalled. The next round is scheduled today.
The missiles are to be deployed in Britain, West Germany, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands. They are meant to balance the Soviet deployment of about 360 triple warhead SS-20 missiles already in place.
The Soviets have threatened to quit the talks if the NATO deployment proceeds and say they will install more missiles in response. NATO has said the arrival of the U.S. missiles in Europe does not constitute deployment.
"The NATO deployment is planned to be completed over a five-year period. It can be halted, modified or reversed at any time," Heseltine said.
Anti-missile protests, encamped outside Greenham Common's gates for the past 26 months, were caught napping by the missiles early morning arrival.
"Many of us probably feel like weeping, but we won't give way," protestor Elizabeth Beech told reporters.
Monsignor Bruce Kent general secretary of Britain's Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, called the landing of the missiles "a major tragedy, not just for the CND or anybody else, but for the human race."
The GReenham Common protestors have vowed to fling themselves in the path of the missiles mobile launchers should they venture from the base NATO plans called for the missiles to be dispersed around the countryside.