NATO warplanes to patrol Baltics from March 29
RIGA (AFP) Mar 25, 2004
NATO warplanes will start to patrol Baltic airspace on March 29, Latvian Defence Minister Atis Slakteris said on Thursday, confirming plans by the alliance that have edged up tensions with neighbouring Russia.

Slakteris said the patrols would be carried out by Belgian Air Force planes. Denmark had originally been expected to provide the planes.

"It is symbolic indeed that Latvias airspace will be patrolled by Belgian airplanes, because Belgium is a small NATO country likewise Latvia," Slakteris said.

The Belgian defence ministry in Brussels would not confirm the report.

Slakteris said the Belgian air force planes would be stationed at Siauliai, in the north of neighbouring Lithuania, and that Norwegian personnel, who would be serving the Belgian aircraft, would arrive at the base on March 26.

Four NATO airplanes would patrol Latvian airspace daily, Slakteris said.

Russia is deeply unhappy about NATO's move to station warplaces in its the three former Soviet Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania which are set to join NATO on April 2.

After spending years fruitlessly trying to block the expansion of the military alliance up to its borders, Russia has come out on the offensive, with Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov saying Thursday he may order a nuclear build-up in response to NATO's Baltic operations.

Moscow fears that flights over Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania would enable the alliance to spy on its defences.