American demolition experts Thursday blew up a 230-foot tower at one of the former Soviet Union's most important radar bases.

Dubbed "The Monster" by locals, the unfinished relic of the Cold War was seen by Latvians as a last remnant of 50 years of hated Soviet occupation.It towered ominously above this rural, forested landscape before a series of explosions sent it collapsing into a pile of shattered concrete and twisted metal.

Thursday's demolition was sponsored by the United States, the Soviet Union's main nuclear rival. Washington paid the $7 million bill for the work, which was carried out by U.S.-based Controlled Demolition Inc.

The event was highly politicized in Latvia, where leaders jockeyed to take credit for bringing down the tower, 93 miles southwest of Riga, the capital.

Latvia's president and prime minister vied for rights to push the button setting off the explosion, according to a Foreign Ministry official. To avert a public squabble, they let demolition experts detonate the blast.

Until the collapse of the Soviet Union 1991, Skrunda served as one of Moscow's most important radar stations, responsible for scanning skies to the west for incoming bombers or nuclear missiles.

While Thursday's blast destroyed the latest and largest installation at Skrunda, Russia will continue to operate older facilities at the base until 1998. After that, the entire radar complex will be dismantled.

In a 1994 treaty, Latvia agreed to let Moscow continue limited operations at Skrunda in return for the pullout of Russia's remaining troops from Latvia.

Though the Skrunda tower collapsed in a matter of seconds, experts said bringing it down was not as easy as it appeared.

The structure's 41,000 concrete blocks and 8,000 tons of reinforced steel beams were intended to help it withstand heavy enemy fire. Its foundation ran 80 feet deep into the ground.