Poland to start patrolling Baltic airspace

Poland's air force will take over NATO duties patrolling the airspace over Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia on New Year's Day amid concerns about Russian violations of the Baltic countries' airspace. Defense Ministry spokesman Piotr Paszkowski said Tuesday that four Polish Soviet-built MiG-29s will begin a three-month mission patrolling Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, which border Russia.

The daily Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza reported Tuesday, citing unnamed defense officials, that the Polish military fears Russia may use the opportunity to test the Polish air force's response capabilities. Paszkowski would not comment on those suspicions, but did note that Russian planes have violated the Baltic states' airspace in the past while flying to Kaliningrad, Moscow's Baltic exclave.

"There is a history of provocation in the past when other states were fulfilling the mission," Paszkowski said. "We hope that such incidents won't happen," during Poland's tenure. In September, a Russian Su-27 fighter-bomber, en route from St. Petersburg to Kaliningrad, crashed in the Lithuanian countryside; Lithuanian officials detained the pilot but later released him. In a separate incident a month later, Estonia lodged a protest of alleged Russian violation of its airspace.

Relations between Warsaw and Moscow chilled when Poland, a former Soviet satellite state, joined NATO in 1999. Those uneasy ties have suffered new lows over the past year following Poland's support during Ukraine's Orange Revolution for Viktor Yushchenko against a candidate backed by Moscow. Poland was also angered by Russia's decision to build a Baltic Sea gas pipeline to Germany bypassing Polish territory. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, former Soviet republics, joined NATO last year. Because they lack the modern aircraft needed to police their own airspace, they rely on NATO's support in that area, Paszkowski said, reports the AP. N.U.

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