Clinton backs Balts with strong freedom signals

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TO THE delight of thousands of cheering Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians, President Bill Clinton yesterday sent out the clearest signal to date of Washington's support for the independence of the Baltic states and its determination to see the total withdrawal of all remaining Russian troops stationed there by the end of next month.

Speaking in front of the landmark Freedom Monument in the Latvian capital, Riga, President Clinton hailed the heroic struggle of the Baltic states for independence from the Soviet Union, finally achieved just under three years ago.

'You taught us never to give up. You inspired the world,' Mr Clinton declared. 'America kept faith with you. For 50 years we refused to recognise the occupation of your nations . . . and we will rejoice with you when the last of the foreign troops vanish from your homeland.' Mr Clinton's words, delivered on the first day of an eight-day trip to Europe which will take in Poland, Germany and Italy for a summit of the G7 leading industrial nations, came as music to the ears of his hosts. With disturbing signs of a resurgence of Russian nationalism, all three Baltic states are terrified they may once again fall under Moscow's yoke.

'The mere presence of the President here sent out a strong signal to the rest of the world,' said Eimars Semanis, a senior official at the Latvian Foreign Ministry. 'Effectively it was saying we have rejoined the Western world - and, crucially, that the US cares about us.'

Although there are no longer any Russian troops in Lithuania, some 10,500 are still stationed in Latvia and 2,500 in Estonia. Under an agreement brokered by Washington earlier this year, Russia pledged to pull all its forces out of Latvia by 31 August. But Moscow refused to sign a similar agreement with Estonia because of what it termed discrimination against mainly ethnic Russian former Soviet citizens there.

Mr Clinton, who will be meeting the Russian President Boris Yeltsin at the G7 summit over the weekend, said yesterday that he believed the differences between Moscow and Tallinn were now 'narrow' and that, given 'flexibility' on both sides, the 31 August deadline could also be met in Estonia.

While voicing concern over the rights of the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians brought into the Baltics under Stalin's orders, Mr Clinton refused to link them to the troop withdrawals. He did, however, suggest that 'a tolerant and inclusive approach' aimed at the integration of the large ethnic Russian and other minorities would, in the end, be in everbody's best interests. So, too, would thriving economies in the Baltic states.

To that end, President Clinton announced the establishment of a dollars 50m ( pounds 33m) enterprise fund to promote private investments in the three countries and a trade and investment mission to the region.

Before going on to Warsaw later in the day, Mr Clinton also said that dollars 2m would be made available to help clear up pollution at a former Soviet naval base in Estonia and dollars 4m would be set aside to help with the dismantling of an early warning radar facility in Latvia. The President also said he would ask Congress to provide dollars 10m for peace-keeping forces from Central and Eastern Europe, including the Baltic states.