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Terrorist attacks against U.S. stun Baltics

  • 2001-09-13
  • Rokas M. Tracevskis
VILNIUS - The terrorist attacks in New York and Washington D.C. on Sept. 11 broadcast by CNN and local TV stations have left the Baltic people in deep shock. Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian national television and most commercial stations rebroadcast CNN with breaks for local reactions. People at work listened intently to their radios and TVs.

"This is a terrible tragedy," Kazys Bobelis, Lithuanian Christian Democrat MP and formerly a U.S. citizen, told The Baltic Times. "Most Lithuanians have relatives in the United States, a country which has helped Lithuania a lot in the past."

He added that this week's shocking events were unlikely to affect the Baltic states' hopes of being admitted to NATO.

Jonas Kronkaitis, formerly a U.S. military officer but now commander-in-chief of Lithuania's armed forces, told the commercial channel TV3: "I used to work in the Pentagon. The plane exactly hit my former room there, according to my son, who lives in Washington.

"This is not the beginning of World War III. Lithuania is absolutely safe as it has no enemies."

Eveli Murkel, an Estonian who works in New York, was close to the disaster when it happened. She told Aripaev Online: "It's incredible. I am watching Manhattan from my apartment window, and all I see is dust."

Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus, currently on a visit to Washington, told Baltic News Service by telephone from his hotel room: "The situation is extremely hectic. Who can hold meetings today when there is this act of terrorism? No one thought it could happen in America."

The terrorist attacks have cut short Adamkus' plans to meet with senior U.S. officials. A meeting with the U.S. vice president, Dick Cheney, and President George W. Bush at the White House was thrown into disarray when the White House itself was evacuated.

Adamkus said the meeting was unlikely to happen now that U.S. leaders are ensconced in crisis talks and an emergency meeting of the National Security Council has been called.

Adamkus learned of the explosions during a breakfast with members of the Jewish American Committee. At the time the Lithuanian first lady, Alma Adamkiene, was watching a live television broadcast as a second aircraft collided with the World Trade Center building in New York. Adamkus said he could see a fire about one kilometer away at the Pentagon from his hotel window. He then confirmed that his security detail had been beefed up, saying: "A whole lot more agents have shown up."

The Lithuanian president could not say whether he would be returning to Lithuania earlier than planned, since all U.S. airports are closed and warplanes are patrolling the skies. Adamkus arrived in the United States Sept. 9 and was scheduled to return Sept. 17.

The afternoon of Sept. 11 saw the most brazen series of terrorist attacks on the United States in world history. At first two hijacked airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center's twin towers in New York causing both to collapse. The third commercial airline hit the Pentagon in Washington, and yet another plane came down in Pennsylvania. The total number of casualties is not yet known.

"I sure hope those who planned this attack are found and punished. I'm not a fan of the death penalty, but would gladly pull the trigger myself in this case," Paul Beckman, a former resident of Vilnius now living in his native Texas, told The Baltic Times.

A meeting of the U.S.-Baltic Partnership Charter scheduled to take place in Washington on Sept. 13 has been postponed by the Baltics' foreign ministers.

Latvian and Estonian presidents Vaira Vike-Freiberga and Lennart Meri sent a letter to U.S. President George W. Bush strongly denouncing the attacks and expressing condolences.

The three Baltic states stepped up security at all foreign embassies and government agencies. The Latvian government adjourned its regular meeting to listen to the reports of the attacks, while their Estonian colleagues got together for a special cabinet session to discuss security in Estonia.

The Latvian defense forces are on standby and ready to transfer to combat mode in an emergency. "I hope there is not a threat, but we must be ready for anything," said Latvian Prime Minister Andris Berzins. Unstable people could conceive "the craziest ideas" by watching their TV screens, he warned.

Estonian security structures said sites important to Estonia were fully protected. Security measures were increased across the Baltics at government buildings, borders and Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant, one of Lithuania's most strategic facilities. The nuclear reactor is operating at normal capacity there. The plant's director Viktoras Sevaldinas said it was placed on "increased supervision alert."

The Latvian and Lithuanian foreign ministries have launched a hotline service open 24 hours a day for people to call and inquire about their relatives currently in the U.S.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar announced in Tallinn that he would interrupt his visit to the Baltic States and return to Spain. "Maybe I will make a short stop in Vilnius in the evening, but I will certainly visit Riga some other time," he told reporters.

Aznar was to go from Tallinn to Vilnius and from there to Riga.

The attacks have created queues at currency exchange outlets in Tallinn, with people trying to get rid of their U.S. dollars, Estonian Kuku Radio reported at 7 p.m. on Sept. 11.

The economic consequences for the world and Estonian economies will be long-term, warned Joakim Helenius, an analyst at Trigon Capital investment bank, in an interview with Aripaev Online.

According to American data from the late 1980s, there are almost 1 million Americans of ethnic Lithuanian origin, 100,000 of Latvian origin and 20,000 of Estonian origin living in the U.S. According to non-official information, some 250,000 Lithuanians moved to America between 1990 and 2000.

(With additional reporting by Aleksei Gunter in Tallinn and TBT staff in Riga.)