Hurd pledges help for Baltics

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The Independent Online
DOUGLAS HURD, the Foreign Secretary, yesterday delighted the leaders of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia by declaring that Britain would help to train and equip a peace-keeping battalion in the Baltic states.

Speaking in Riga, the Latvian capital, Mr Hurd said that the battalion, which will consist of 650 men, 'gives a clear view, Britain's view, of the standing of the Baltic states'.

British aid to the battalion will be limited, but symbolically yesterday's announcement marked an important step. Apart from the Nordic countries, Britain is the first Western state to lend support to the unit. Eventually the battalion could become involved in international peace-keeping operations or in joint manoeuvres with Nato countries under the Partnership for Peace programme. According to Baltic defence sources, the battalion could serve as a useful funnel for the West to give military aid.

Mr Hurd's pledge of support for the battalion came during a day of meetings with senior figures from all three Baltic states in which he sought to reassure them that Britain would resist any Russian attempt to include them in the 'near abroad', Moscow's term for the former Soviet republics in which it still has 'vital interests'.

'It is natural that Russia has interests and discussions with the three (Baltic) countries but it is perfectly clear that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are free and independent countries,' he said. As such, they had the right to insist on the unconditional withdrawal of all remaining Russian troops.

Russian troops in Latvia and Estonia, estimated at 15,000, are due to pull out by the end of August. Much to the relief of his hosts, Mr Hurd did not link troop withdrawals to that of citizenship rights for the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians in the Baltic states.