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Kyrgyzstan: Officials Delay Baltic Participation In Antiterrorism Operations

Kyrgyzstan is refusing to allow troops from Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia to serve at a Kyrgyz base supporting the U.S.-led antiterrorism campaign in Afghanistan. Kyrgyzstan says the Baltic countries were too late in sending their requests to enter the Central Asian country. But the Baltic states still hope to negotiate an agreement that will allow them to contribute to Operation Enduring Freedom.

Prague, 23 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A plan by Baltic countries Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to participate in the Enduring Freedom antiterrorism operation has been put on hold by Kyrgyz authorities.

The Kyrgyz government announced on 9 April that it would not allow the three Baltic countries to send troops to the Manas military airbase, saying they failed to apply for permission in time. The Baltic troops would have been a part of a Danish contingent in Kyrgyzstan and would have performed logistics work. Efforts to convince the Kyrgyz government to change its stance have so far been unsuccessful.

Kyrgyz authorities say that the failure to apply for permission in a timely fashion is the only reason permission was denied. Lira Sobyrava, head of the Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry press office, told RFE/RL: "The problem is that Kyrgyzstan set a deadline for the submission of applications. Fourteen January was set as the final date for countries to apply to take part in the antiterrorist coalition."

She said that Denmark did not inform Kyrgyzstan the Baltic troops were due to join the Danish contingent. The three Baltic states, which were invited to join the Danes on 17 January 17 and which require permission from their own parliaments in order to send troops abroad, filed their Kyrgyz applications only in the middle of February.

Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are prepared to send approximately 10 troops apiece. Linas Linkevicius, the Lithuanian defense minister, said the Kyrgyz authorities did not inform Lithuania about the necessary procedures in time for them to meet the 14 January deadline.

"Speaking frankly, we couldn't comply with the timetable. When Kyrgyzstan informed Denmark that Lithuania [and the other two Baltic countries] must ask for separate permission [to allow troops] to enter the country, it was at exactly the same time as the deadline for applications. So we physically could not apply in time," Linkevicius said.

Linkevicius said Lithuanian troops are prepared to leave as soon as possible for training in Denmark and then on to service in Kyrgyzstan. He said he does not believe that the late application is the only reason for the Kyrgyz refusal to allow Baltic troops to enter the country.

"I do not think that [failing to meet the deadline] is the main cause for the refusal. There are some bureaucratic obstacles that could have been solved if there had been enough positive political activity [on the part of the Kyrgyz government]. But it may be -- although I wouldn't like to think so -- that the decision was influenced by some third state," Linkevicius said.

The "third state" Linkevicius has in mind may be Russia. According to Raimundas Lopata, the director of Lithuania's Institute of Foreign Relations, a Vilnius think tank, Kyrgyz bureaucracy may be partly to blame for the lack of coordination in sending the Baltic troops to join the Danish contingent.

But he also said the Baltic countries' hopes of joining the NATO military alliance this fall -- hopes that may be bolstered by aiding the contingent of NATO member Denmark -- may still be psychologically hard for Russia to accept. He said Russia may have influenced the Kyrgyz decision to reject the Baltic troops.

"Lithuania and the other Baltic states [by participating in the antiterrorism operations] want to show that even now they are acting as NATO members. By blocking such actions, [Russia] is trying to neutralize this argument," Lopata said.

The head of the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry's Information and Culture Department, Petras Zapolskas, said Lithuania is making every effort to ensure participation in Operation Enduring Freedom.

"Lithuanian has used diplomatic channels, and has had more than one meeting with Kyrgyz officials. Our deputy foreign minister -- the so-called "Mr. NATO," Giedrius Cekuolis -- went to Kyrgyzstan in the middle of April to discuss the issue. And during the Reykjavik summit [of NATO foreign ministers on 14-15 May], Lithuanian Foreign Minister Antanas Valionis met with the Kyrgyz deputy foreign minister," Zapolskas said.

Zapolskas said it is too early to say for sure that the doors are closed on Lithuanian participation in the antiterrorism operation, saying, "there is hope this problem will be solved."

In Estonia, Foreign Ministry Deputy Undersecretary Harri Tiido said troops have already returned from training in Denmark and are awaiting permission to deploy to Manas. Tiido said despite numerous discussions with Kyrgyz officials, he has received no definite word that permission will be granted. "There are no talks now," Tiido said. "The only thing we can do is wait for a decision by the Kyrgyz authorities and hope it will be positive."

Meanwhile, Vilmars Henins, a spokesman for the Latvian Foreign Ministry, says his country has not been officially denied permission to travel to Kyrgyzstan, and that talks are continuing.

"We have not received any refusal from the Kyrgyz side and we are continuing talks with our Kyrgyz colleagues about our peacekeeping forces," Henins said.

Lira Sobyrava of the Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry press office, however, said of the three Baltic countries, Lithuania is the only one actively working to find a way out of the stalemate. She said Lithuanian Deputy Foreign Minister Cekuolis, during his visit to Kyrgyzstan, asked for his country's application to be reconsidered -- a request the Kyrgyz Security Council may take up. Latvia and Estonia, Sobyrava added, have yet to make similar requests, and that until they do, there is little hope they will receive permission to send their troops to Manas.