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    SERGEI LAVROV ON NATO'S DECISION TO PATROL BALTIC AIR SPACE

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    MOSCOW, APRIL 2, 2004 (RIA NOVOSTI'S OLGA SEMENOVA) - Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia will officially join NATO today; among other things, they will have their flags raised at NATO headquarters in Brussels. Moreover, NATO warplanes will start patrolling their air space.

    The Russia-NATO Council is to hold its session in the 26-plus-one format at NATO headquarters today, what with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov inquiring whether regular patrol missions involving NATO fighters along the Russian border are something legitimate.

    NATO explanations didn't sound convincing, Mr. Lavrov said, after the Minsk session of the Council of CIS Foreign Ministers wound up.

    We were told this was a normal defensive measure because the NATO external perimeter is being patrolled, Mr. Lavrov said.

    In his words, the Russian side was worried about the words "normal" and "defensive". Does this mean that NATO wants to defend itself from us? Mr. Lavrov inquired. At the same time, NATO believes that old-time methods and its old-time essence as an organization for defending the North Atlantic region from Communism are quite "normal", Mr. Lavrov explained.

    We believed that NATO was gradually evolving from a "normal" organization (in the old sense of the word) into a structure, which was trying to respond to new threats and challenges facing all of us together with its partners, Russia included, Mr. Lavrov stressed.

    The Russian Foreign Minister deems it necessary to ask various questions being posed by the Russian side in the context of European security and in the context of problems arising from the admission of new NATO members, four of which, i.e. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, are not parties to the CFE (Conventional Forces in Europe) Treaty, at the session of the Russia-NATO Council.

    F16 multi-role fighters serving with the Belgian air force landed at Lithuania's air-force base near Siauliai March 29, taking off on their first trial flight March 31. Three out of four Belgian warplanes patrolled Estonian air space near Rakvere and Kunda for 60 minutes.

    The Zokniai air-force base wasn't chosen by sheer coincidence for NATO air-force units. The local airfield, which is the best in the Baltics, used to handle military cargo planes and strategic bombers. It could receive just about any aircraft, including the Buran (Snow Storm) reusable space shuttle.

    The BALTNET common air-defense system would like to use auxiliary airfields in Emart, Estonia and Lielvarde, Latvia. The NATO air-defense system's Baltic sector will also feature an air-traffic control center in Karmelava, Lithuania. NATO's military are pinning high hopes on that center, which will mostly control Baltic air space. All planes will take off whenever necessary.

    Danish, Dutch and British air-force units will start patrolling regional air space (on a rotation basis) after Belgium.

    However, NATO, which doesn't yet guard Baltic air space, has already suffered its first casualties. Two Belgian servicemen were beaten up by local residents near a Siauliai hotel in the evening of March 29.

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