Russian missile move angers NATO member Estonia

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Baltic NATO member Estonia on Tuesday slammed its neighbour and Soviet-era master Moscow for deploying missiles near their border, saying the move ran counter to ongoing fence-mending efforts.

"Russia's decision to position Iskander-class missiles on its western border is an alarming move," Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet told AFP.

"While both sides speak of a desire to improve NATO-Russia relations and develop a partnership, this decision sends a negative signal," he added.

On Saturday, the commander of Russia's ground forces Alexander Postnikov told Moscow Echo radio that Iskander missile systems were being put into service in the military region around the city of Saint Petersburg, which lies some 140 kilometres (90 miles) from Estonia.

Postnikov said the missiles would mainly be based in that region, but added they could also be deployed elsewhere at short notice.

Russia and the United States have sparred over Washington's plans to deploy anti-missile facilities in the former communist bloc, with Moscow disputing the US position that they are meant to ward off a potential threat from Iran.

Over the past year, however, NATO powerhouse the United States has been striving to "reset" its relationship with Russia and mend fences.

Staunch US ally Estonia, a nation of 1.3 million people, was ruled by the Soviet Union for five decades but regained independence in 1991 when the bloc crumbled.

Estonia's ties with Russia have been rocky since then, and took a slide after it joined NATO and the European Union in 2004.

Russia has also warned that it could deploy Iskander missiles in its Baltic territory of Kaliningrad -- which is sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania, both ex-communist NATO and EU members.

Iskander missiles have a range of 400 kilometres (250 miles), Estonian Defence Minister Jaak Aaviksoo noted.

The missiles deployed near Saint Petersburg would therefore be able to reach not only Estonia but also Lithuania, their fellow NATO and EU member Latvia, and neutral EU member Finland.

"Such a step is incomprehensible, considering both present-day security threats and present relations between Russia and NATO," the Baltic News Service quoted Aaviksoo as saying.

"We are aware of the deployment of Iskander missiles in the immediate vicinity of Estonian and NATO borders and we keep very close watch on everything that goes on beyond our borders," he said.

© 2010 AFP

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