By Gederts Gelzis
RIGA (Reuters) - Hidden in the forests of Aluksne, near Latvia's north-eastern border with Russia, the remains of a former Soviet nuclear missile base are a magnet for tourists now rather than a top-secret site manned by soldiers.
The Zeltini missile launch site, operational during the Cold War years from 1962 to 1984 when Latvia was under Soviet rule, at one time concealed at least eight nuclear missiles in its hangars.
"Missiles were erected, everything was ready. We waited for a command," said Leonid Konovalov, a 74-year-old pensioner and ethnic Russian, as he stood on the concrete field surrounded by trees.
He served at the Zeltini base during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis when his job was to fuel the 22 meter-high 8K63 nuclear rockets.
"We slept with machine-guns by our sides. We were not allowed to take off our clothes," said Konovalov. "Conditions were really tense."
The nuclear rockets at the base were the same model as those whose deployment on Cuba triggered the Cold War standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union.
"Those missiles could reach a radius of 2,000 km (1,250 miles)," said Ilgonis Upmalis, a former member of the Soviet military and an 80-year-old expert on Soviet military bases in Latvia.
"They could reach parts of Europe. They could really (hit) London," he said.
It was only in the early 1990s when Latvia regained its independence from a collapsing Soviet Union and Moscow recalled its military that Latvians found out about the existence of the Zeltini base, just one of several such in the country.
Upmalis says that Latvia, as a borderland of the Soviet empire, was crammed with military installations ranging from tanks, artillery and ammunition stockpiles to submarine bases, military airfields and five bases for nuclear missiles.
The Soviet military was deployed in 24 of Latvia's 26 regions, Upmalis said.
The now abandoned former military buildings and missile hangars attract thousands of tourists each year. Latvia is now a member of the U.S.-led NATO alliance awaiting deployment of a NATO combat battalion intended to serve as a deterrent to a Russia once again seen as a threat to the West.
NATO leaders agreed in July to deploy military forces to the Baltic states and eastern Poland for the first time and increase air and sea patrols.
(Reporting by Gederts Gelzis; Editing by Daniel Dickson and Richard Balmforth)