Estonia says Moscow is reneging on troop deal: Tallinn fears the Russians want to delay their departure

ESTONIA accused Russia yesterday of reneging on an agreement to withdraw its remaining troops from the Baltic state by 31 August. In a statement issued after two days of talks in Moscow, the Estonian foreign ministry said that Moscow had 'presented its positions in a more or less ultimatum-style' and that in so doing had set back the negotiations on Russian troop withdrawals by several months.

Juri Luik, the Estonian Foreign Minister, in Brussels for talks with Nato and European Union officials, nevertheless expressed hope that 'with the help of the international community' the Russian troops might yet be persuaded to leave according to the timetable that Moscow itself had proposed last year.

Of the three Baltic states, Estonia is the only one yet to have concluded an agreement with Moscow over the estimated 2,300 Russian troops who are still stationed on its territory.

Moscow has promised to pull out its remaining 12,000 forces from neighbouring Latvia by the end of August as part of a deal under which Russia will be able to carry on using the early-warning radar facility at Skrunda for four more years. The last Russian troops based in Lithuania were withdrawn at the end of last August.

According to sources close to the latest round of talks, the main sticking points remain Moscow's insistence that some 10,000 retired army officers currently living in Estonia be granted unqualified residency rights and state pensions, and that Tallinn come up with dollars 23m ( pounds 16m) to pay the cost of rehousing the officers who return home.

'It is absurd. When a war ends, the army goes home and that should be the end of it,' Mari-Ann Rikken, spokeswoman at the Estonian foreign ministry said. 'But we are being asked to carry on paying for the occupation.'

Russia first introduced the cash demand and residency rights conditions last month. In addition to fierce protests from Tallinn, the fresh demands were sharply criticised in the West, with several countries, including Britain, pointing out that in 1992 Russia agreed to withdraw its forces from the Baltic states 'unconditionally, speedily and in an orderly manner'.

Many Estonians fear that by moving the goal posts, Russia is aiming to extend the presence of its troops perhaps into next year or to exact as big a price as possible for agreeing to their earlier departure.

'The fact is that they just do not want to cut their connection with the Baltics,' said Mrs Rikken. 'To many Russians - and not just Vladimir Zhirinovsky (leader of the extreme nationalists) - we are not seen as independent countries, but simply as the Baltic region of Russia.'

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