Russia Pulls Last Troops Out of Baltics

SKRUNDA, Latvia -- Russia handed control of a key radar facility over to the ex-Soviet republic of Latvia on Thursday, formally ending its resented, half-century military presence in the Baltic states.

After the handover ceremony at the Skrunda radar base, 100 kilometers west of Riga, the capital, Latvians hailed what they said was the official end of a military occupation that began during World War II.

"This is a very important day for Latvia," said Latvian Foreign Ministry spokesman Janis Silis, speaking by telephone from Skrunda. "This marks the point when all Latvian territory is finally under our complete control."

The ceremony, at which Russian officers were present, was the first time Latvian officials and media were allowed onto the base, which was off-limits to non-Russian military personnel before Thursday.

From 1971 until the radar was switched off last year, Skrunda was a key component in Russia's air-defense network, responsible for scanning the western skies for any incoming missiles.

Soviet soldiers entered Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in 1939, forcibly annexing the three Baltic states a year later. Scores of military bases were established and hundreds of thousands of troops stationed in the region.

In the years after the Baltic states regained independence in 1991, virtually all Russia's bases were abandoned and its troops withdrawn.

But as part of its pullout treaty with Moscow and at the urging of Western governments, Latvia grudgingly agreed in 1994 to let Russia continue operating the Skrunda radar for four more years.

Russia switched the radar off in 1998, then had 18 months more to dismantle it. Thursday's handover came four months prior to the deadline, a sign of how well the treaty was adhered to, Latvian officials said.

"This shows that Russia and Latvia can cooperate with each other. Russia did a good job," Latvian Foreign Minister Indulis Berzins was quoted by his press service as saying in Skrunda.

About 20 Russian officers who oversaw the closing of the station were expected to leave Latvia over the next few weeks.

Russia has scrambled to find a replacement for Skrunda. Moscow said Thursday it would step up efforts to complete a new radar station in the former Soviet republic of Belarus, which borders Latvia to the east.

Many Latvians saw the Skrunda base as the last relic of a hated Soviet occupation. Some people living in the area of the base also claimed the electromagnetic rays emitted from the facility were a health hazard.

Latvia has not decided what to do with the dismantled, 40-hectare base, which includes warehouses, apartment blocks and even a kindergarten. One proposal was to turn it into a low-security prison.

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