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US Radio Plan Challenged

Environmentalists say Voice of America station in Israel poses hazards

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DOTTED with wind-sculpted acacia trees and salt bushes, the broad savannah of Israel's central Arava Valley could easily pass for a scene from the film ``Out of Africa.'' Prized by environmentalists, this pristine stretch of sand and limestone along the Jordanian border is one of the last unspoiled desert areas in Israel. But if the United States has its way, the site will soon be transformed by a forest of antennas that will beam Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Liberty broadcasts to Central Asia, Africa, and Europe.

US officials say the $290 million project is needed to promote democratic values in regions of the world still untouched by the recent political earthquakes. The collapse of the Iron Curtain has made the VOA station an anachronism, respond environmentalists and Arava residents, whose last-ditch campaign to stop the project also cites potential health hazards and dangers to wildlife.

The fate of the relay station could come next week when an Israeli planning board decides whether to recommend final approval for construction to begin.

With 37 antennas, the VOA complex would be one of the largest and most powerful of its kind in the world.

When Israel gave conditional approval for the project three years ago, few took notice. Since then two events have turned it into a minor cause c'el`ebre.

After reconsidering the matter, the Israeli Air Force, which uses most of Israel's Negev Desertfor training flights, decided that emissions from the antennas could interfere with aircraft navigation systems. Determined to stay out of the controversy, the Air Force has asked to move its operations south and to turn one of Israel's last two desert nature reserves into a firing range.

Meanwhile, new scientific research has indicated possible radiation-related health risks to residents of the farming settlements located near the VOA site and on local wildlife, including tens of millions of migratory birds.

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