Baltic troops prepare for explosive missions

  • 2002-04-11
  • Geoffrey Vasiliauskas

The Baltic states are about to send troops to two of the most dangerous regions of the world.

Georgia, a war-torn country in the Caucasus bordering Russia's breakaway republic of Chechnya, and Kyrgyzstan, a republic in Central Asia close to the border with Afghanistan, are both troubled former Soviet republics with divisions of NATO peacekeeping troops stationed on their territories.

All three Baltic parliaments have approved the deployments of their soldiers, tentatively scheduled to take place between April and December this year.

The plan in Kyrgyzstan is for each of the Baltic states to send a force of at least 10 troops (Lithuania will send up to 15) for logistics work at Manas Airport outside the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek (formerly Frunze). U.S. and allied troops have taken over the airport as a base for flying missions into Afghanistan.

The Baltic troops would serve under Danish command. Initially the troops will have a Lithuanian unit leader, and Latvian and Estonian commanders will be rotated after that.

Denmark proposed the idea, and at a meeting between Lithuanian Defense Minister Linas Linkevicius and his Danish counterpart Svend Jensby in February, both parties agreed that Denmark would initially train the Baltic troops prior to deployment.

Denmark will cover the major costs of the mission, with the Baltic countries responsible for paying the soldiers their salaries and insurance.

There is little likelihood the Baltic troops will see real combat at the airport.

Meanwhile, 10 Lithuanian troops, two officers and probably five medics will be sent in June to the Vaziani airbase - vacated by Russian troops last year - near the Georgian capital Tblisi.

NATO exercises there, called Cooperative Best Effort 2002, will involve troops from several NATO members and Partnership for Peace participants. The Georgian hosts reported that the exercises are to take place near an Armenian refugee camp, giving the mission a humanitarian spin.

Lieutenant Colonel Gediminas Dabkevicius, Lithuania's deputy chief of staff for international cooperation and integration, is to lead the Lithuanian contingent. He traveled to the airbase earlier in the year.

Estonia and Latvia are not sending troops to these exercises, he confirmed.

Russia began reporting after Sept. 11 that first Chechen, then Chechen and al Qaeda terrorists were working out of northern Georgia. More recently, tension has been mounting between Russia and Georgia, who are trading charges that each side is planning to attack the other and is hiding and helping international terrorists.

Lieutenant Colonel Dabkevicius said that Lithuania decided to take part in the NATO exercises before the war of words reached boiling point. "We decided to participate in January, before all that began," he said.

The U.S.A. recently sent elite units to Georgia based on reports it had received that al Qaeda fighters had found shelter in Pankisi Gorge, a remote valley in a mountainous area formally under Georgian control that borders Chechnya.

Dabkevicius insisted Lithuania was not planning to take part in the U.S. hunt for terrorists in northern Georgia. Asked whether Lithuania might join the American operation in the future, he said, "Not at my level."

Rita Grumdaite, spokeswoman for the Lithuanian Defense Ministry, also said there were no such plans.

NATO exercises in Georgia are being coordinated through the NATO base in Izmir, Turkey to commence in the second half of June.

Lithuania also intends to send a contingent of 12 army doctors to serve in a mobile field hospital under Czech command in Afghanistan in May.