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Swedes join NATO Baltic air exercise

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Swedes join NATO Baltic air exercise
07:51 CET+01:00
Swedish fighter aircraft took part in a NATO led exercise over the Baltic states on Wednesday, marking a new level in the formally non-aligned country's ties with the military alliance.

JAS Gripen aircraft joined the exercise with other NATO members in the skies above the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

"For the first time ever, Swedish JAS-39 Gripen fighters trained together with NATO aircraft, enhancing the safety of the airspace of the Baltic," Estonian military spokesperson Lieutenant Commander Ingrid Muehling told AFP.

Since the Cold War ended two decades ago, Sweden has gradually boosted ties with the 28-member North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, while remaining neutral.

But Wednesday's exercise marked a new level in links.

"It was a very important step in expanding cooperation between NATO air forces in the Baltics and NATO partner Sweden," said Lieutenant General Friedrich Ploeger, the German officer who is deputy commander of NATO's air hub at Ramstein in Germany.

"It showed our capacity to defend the Baltic airspace, and stressed our commitment to joint security," he told reporters in Estonia's capital Tallinn.

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania won independence from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1991 after five decades of Kremlin rule, and have rocky relations with their former master.

They joined NATO and the European Union in 2004. With a total population of 6.7 million and a professional military of 20,500, they lack sufficient aircraft to police their own skies.

As a result, larger NATO members take turns patrolling the trio's airspace on rotations lasting several months at a time, out of a base in Lithuania.

German fliers are currently responsible for the patrols, and in the exercise practised alongside their Swedish counterparts.

Besides Sweden, Germany and the Baltic states, the exercise also involved ex-communist Poland, which joined NATO in 1999.

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