Slovakia backs U.S. defence pact despite opposition during Ukraine crisis

PRAGUE, Feb 9 (Reuters) - Lawmakers in Slovakia narrowly approved a defence treaty with the United States on Wednesday, making it the last NATO member on the alliance's eastern frontier to enact such a pact, despite rowdy opposition in parliament fuelled by the Ukraine crisis.

The treaty allows U.S. forces to use two airports in Slovakia, which shares a short mountainous border with Ukraine. Western countries accuse Russia of planning an invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow denies.

Other NATO countries in Eastern Europe have strongly backed a U.S. decision to beef up forces in the region during the standoff with Moscow. But the issue is more contentious in Slovakia, where an opinion poll showed in January that 44.1% of Slovaks believed NATO and the United States were responsible for the tension between Russia and Ukraine, while 34.7% blamed Russia.

The Slovak government said the defence cooperation treaty was in line with treaties signed by 23 other NATO peers, including all those on the alliance's eastern border.

"The agreement is giving us an opportunity to modernise, together with the United States, our defence infrastructure," Defence Minister Jaroslav Nad said before the vote.

"Our allies are guaranteeing our sovereignty. That's exactly what alliances are about."

Seventy-nine lawmakers supported the agreement, just clearing the 76 votes required in the 150-seat parliament. President Zuzana Caputova later ratified the agreement on Wednesday, following the vote.

At one point during a stormy debate, pro-government lawmakers held up a Ukrainian flag below a Slovak flag. An opposition lawmaker tore it down and ripped the face mask off the man holding it.

The pact allows the U.S. military to use facilities at two Slovak airports at Sliac and Malacky for the next 10 years, including storage of equipment. Troop deployments would still be subject to parliamentary approval.

Slovakia also qualifies for $100 million in U.S. funds.

Opposition leader Robert Fico, whose party was in government when the treaty was first negotiated, called the agreement "treacherous, dirty, bad", and said that those supporting it want Slovakia to be a United States "province".

Reporting by Robert Muller; Editing by Peter Graff and Grant McCool

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