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Russians mark 45th birthday of missile site

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PRIOZERSK, Kazakhstan — Russia's military feted the 45th anniversary of its most famous missile test site, a sun-scorched base on the Kazakh steppe that shot down American Gary Powers' U2 spy plane in 1960.

A symbol of Soviet might and glory during the Cold War standoff with the West, the Sary Shagan missile testing site has since fallen on leaner times, though staffers say its work helped Yugoslavia down a $1.3 billion U.S. "Stealth" bomber.

Crowds of weekend visitors stared at the mammoth trucks with huge cigar-shaped anti-aircraft and anti-missile rockets on display at the base, which Russia rents for $25 million a year, cash locals complain they see little of.

"Glory to the creators of the anti-missile shield of the Motherland!" read a banner on the facade of the local officers' club, as a military parade marched by and young conscripts from the Moscow region swore an oath of loyalty nearby.

A conspicuously Soviet town, complete with Lenin statue and bleak socialist-era apartment blocks, Priozersk was just a dot in the endless Kazakh steppe near Lake Balkhash when Moscow decided to open a missile-testing site here in 1956.

Weeks later, tens of thousands of workers and hundreds of missile designers arrived at the inhospitable location some 312 miles north of the Kazakh capital Almaty.

By the early '60s the town, widely cursed for its harsh climate, had nevertheless turned into a mecca for young and ambitious missile experts and army officers seeking, and often obtaining, good careers and high salaries.

Backed by the intellectual potential and supplies of thousands of military plants scattered across the Soviet Union, Priozersk played a crucial role in catching up with Western missile technology and establishing parity.

Nostalgia for the "glorious past" reigns.

"Don't look down on this old missile," an air defense officer chided one visitor as he looked skeptically at one peeling, rusting rocket on show.

"A little thing like this one shot down Powers once," he said with pride.

In a celebrated Cold War episode, Powers was shot down during a reconnaissance flight over a secret arms center in the Urals. He survived and was held in prison for two years, then exchanged for Soviet Col. Rudolf Abel in a Berlin spy swap.

"A modification of this missile recently worked OK and even shot down a 'Stealth' aircraft over Yugoslavia," the officer added, pointing to another exhibit. The plane came down when NATO was bombing Yugoslavia in the 1999 Kosovo conflict.

One version has it that Powers was in fact downed by an Soviet fighter stripped of its weapons to increase its speed, which rammed the ultra-fast U2 spy plane. But rocket engineers at Priozersk proudly stick to the official version.

Ivan Shavkun, now 69, tested and improved air defense systems both in Priozersk and former "fraternal and socialist-oriented" countries. Vietnam was one of the tough assignments he is proud of.

"I worked for seven years in Vietnam. Our government ordered us to help the Vietnamese resist U.S. aggression," he told reporters. "I built up their air defense system, and they would decorate me with high orders for every big success."

Shavkun, his chest covered with orders and medals, proudly displayed four Vietnamese honors. Thousands of U.S. planes had been shot down in Vietnam thanks to Soviet experts, he said.

"This medal is from Egypt," he said, describing another phase of his work abroad. "Once there was a raid by 16 Israeli aircraft ... Just one returned to Tel Aviv," he said, tersely.

Russia, which has said it might use "asymmetrical" measures in response to latest U.S. plans to deploy an anti-missile defense system, needs test sites like Priozersk to develop its next generation of missiles like the high-speed S-400 rocket.

But the military's former optimism has gone, and so has the prestige of serving in the once-elite rocket forces which are often underfunded due to Russia's perennial economic woes.

Once a bustling town of 70,000, Priozersk has seen its population shrink to some 12,000, and many high-rise houses appear abandoned. Some testing grounds have been closed as well.