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U. S. Stresses Close Ties to Baltics

Washington, May 8 (RFE/RL) - The United States is emphasizing close ties to the Baltics and demonstrating support for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania with two sets of joint military exercises to be held in the summer.

U.S. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns spoke about the maneuvers Tuesday, saying they are intended to show U.S. support for the Baltic states and for their military forces.

Both exercises are to take place within the framework of NATO's Partnership for Peace program in July in the Baltic region, one on land, one at sea.

Burns noted that the U.S. has always championed the cause of Baltic independence and that president Bill Clinton is continuing traditional policy.

Burns says the U.S. government believes, in his words, that "close association with the Baltic states is in their interest and our interest."

That's why, he says American troops will conduct peacekeeping maneuvers in Latvia in mid-July with the Baltic Battalion, a unit formed by all three states two years ago with U.S. financing and equipment.

"The exercise is intended to show support for the concept of the Baltic Battalion, itself," Burns said.

U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry suggested recently that the five Central Asian countries might consider pooling their military resources in a joint defense force similar to the Baltic Battalion.

Asked about Russia's response to news of the planned military maneuver in Latvia, Burns said he does not anticipate a negative reaction.

He said "the Russians are well aware that we have taken a very keen interest in the development --economic, political and security -- of the Baltic countries...and that we were the champions of Baltic independence in 1991."

He said "none of this, the exercises or the policy can be a surprise to the Russian government."

Analysts say the strength of Russia's opposition to Baltic membership in NATO is one of the reasons why the Baltic states are unlikely to be included in the first round of NATO expansion eastward and that the forthcoming maneuvers are a way to reassure Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania that the U.S. is concerned about their security.

Burns said Tuesday that the U.S. believes "it is very important that these countries continue to orient themselves westward," developing an economic relationship with the European Union and what he called "a political-security relationship with countries of the West, including the United States."

The joint exercise in Latvia, dubbed "Baltic Challenge" will involve 300 U.S. marines and construction troops. For ten days, from July 8 to July 18, they will train with Baltic soldiers how to conduct various peace-keeping duties, such as manning checkpoints and escorting convoys.

The U.S. has held similar joint maneuvers with Russia and other Partnership members that sent troops to Bosnia to participate in NATO peacekeeping operations.

Burns noted that Baltic Battalion troops are stationed at Tuzla in Bosnia.

The other exercise, called "Baltops," will be a naval search-and-rescue training operation in the Baltic sea to take place in the beginning of July.

Burns says it's an annual event in the Partnership for Peace program involving several countries, including Russia.

He says naval detachments from Russia, Poland and several Nordic countries will take part, along with the U.S. and the Baltic states.