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NATO Chief Touts Alliance's Forces In Baltics Ahead Of Foreign Ministers Meeting In Riga.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg is scheduled to visit a combat-ready battle group in Latvia on November 29 ahead of a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Riga later this week.
Stoltenberg, speaking on November 28 at a news conference in the Latvian capital, said the battle group is part of a significant increase by NATO in the Baltic region that has taken place in recent years. “For the first time in our history, we have combat-ready battle groups in the Baltic region, including one in Latvia and one in Lithuania,” Stoltenberg said at the news conference. “I will visit the one in Latvia tomorrow.” He added that NATO also conducts air policing and has an increased naval presence, so that on land, sea, and in the air, “there is more NATO now” in the Baltic region. Stoltenberg was joined in Riga by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen for meetings dominated by the Belarusian migrant crisis and Russia's military buildup near Ukraine. Stoltenberg and von der Leyen have accused Belarus of orchestrating the migrant crisis on its borders with EU countries Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania as a "hybrid threat” against the European Union -- a charge that the regime of Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka has denied. Stoltenberg and von der Leyen vowed to counter the "hybrid threat" -- defined as a security challenge combining traditional military means and nonmilitary tactics such as disinformation -- during their visits to Latvia, which followed an earlier stop in Lithuania. Latvia has been responding “in a humane way [and] at the same time in a very firm way” to the hybrid attack, von der Leyen said. The EU continues to stand by Latvia, she added, announcing that the bloc will triple EU border-management funding for Latvia, Poland, and Lithuania to 200 million euros ($226.4 million) in 2021 and 2022. She said the money would go toward patrol vehicles and electronic surveillance, including drones. Some migrants have been flown back to their home countries in recent days. Another emergency flight left Minsk on November 28 carrying more than 400 people to Iraq. At least three more flights by Iraqi Airways are planned, including two scheduled to depart Minsk on November 29.
But Stoltenberg warned that the crisis is not yet over as people keep trying to enter the bloc illegally from Belarus. Stoltenberg said he and von der Leyen also discussed Russia's "unusual" buildup of tanks, artillery, drones, and thousands of combat-ready troops near its border with Ukraine. He called it "very concerning for many reasons," also "because it is unprovoked and unexplained." "The message to Russia is that they should de-escalate, reduce tensions, and be transparent" he said, adding that "if they decide to use force, then of course, there will be consequences." NATO remains vigilant, he said and stands ready to defend all NATO member states and will continue to provide Ukraine with political and practical support. The two-day meeting of NATO foreign ministers begins November 30.

With reporting by AFP and dpa

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