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NATO agrees on Baltic airspace policing till 2006



BRUSSELS/VILNIUS, Sep 30, AFP/BNS - Six NATO countries have committed themselves to providing permanent air cover over the Atlantic alliance"s three Baltic states until 2006.


"NATO has set out a rotation schedule for the next six blocks," a high-ranking NATO official has told AFP on condition of anonymity.


During a visit to Vilnius in mid-September, Chairman of the NATO Military Committee, General Harald Kujat confirmed to BNS that the alliance's political leadership had been proposed a Baltic air policing rotation plan for the 2004-2006 period, which would be needed in case the search and implementation of a permanent solution on the matter took longer than expected.


In recent months, discussions on the continuity of the Baltic airspace policing mission have been held at the alliance's headquarters at military and political levels.


The problem of the Baltic airspace policing arose after Great Britain refused to take over the air-policing function from Denmark. Great Britain then said the Zokniai runway, currently under reconstruction, was too short to accept British fighters F-3 Tornado.


However, this technical reasons-based refusal is believed to have said about London's bid to initiate a discussion on a permanent solution to the protection of the skies of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.


Nevertheless, Great Britain later agreed to take over the air policing mission from Denmark and send its aircrafts to the Zokniai airport near Siauliai, northern Lithuania.

Britain should take over the mission from Denmark in mid-October. The Danes will extend their mission until Britain takes over the patrolling so that no break is made in the Baltic airspace policing.


NATO quick-reaction forces were deployed in Lithuania in late March, immediately after Lithuania joined the alliance.


After the North Atlantic Council sanctioned the air-policing mission in the three Baltic nations that did not have defense capacities of their own, NATO allies have been taking turns to send their pilots, airplanes and service personnel to Zokniai.


The political solution is seen as temporary, with a permanent decision yet to be found.


Since March 29, the airspace of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia had been patrolled by a Belgian contingent with four fighters F-16. The Danish Air Force took over the mission on July 1, sending some 50 troops and 5 fighters. The Danish contingent was scheduled to complete its mission on Sep. 31.

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