NATO chief calms Baltic fears over Russia

The head of the NATO military alliance sought to calm fears in the Baltic states on Friday over what some in the region see as a more aggressive Russia and said he saw no need for special defence plans.

Estonia has urged NATO to consider building bases in the Baltic states following Russia's brief war with Georgia. Latvian politicians have also urged Riga to ask NATO for a separate Baltic defence plan.

'NATO is a very flexible organisation and our planning system is also very flexible,' NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told a news conference after meeting Latvian President Valdis Zatlers and the foreign ministers of the three Baltic states.

'I do not think that we need new systems,' he added, noting at the same time that the alliance could very quickly change its strategy if necessary.

The U.S. ambassador to NATO, Kurt Volker, was quoted last week as saying that the alliance must send signals through 'planning and exercises' that it intends to help shore up its Baltic states members.

NATO had its fundamental differences with Russia, de Hoop Scheffer said, adding: 'But we do not consider Russia a threat.'

NATO air patrols would also continue in the Baltic skies, he added. 'Nobody should doubt that air policing will go on.'

De Hoop Scheffer was the latest in a line of NATO officials to visit the Baltic states in recent weeks after Russia's conflict with Georgia.

Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia joined NATO and the European Union in 2004. As former Soviet states with a history of domination by Russia, they remain nervous about their huge neighbour.

[Source: Hemscott, Reuters, Riga, 12Sep08]

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