France says "fragile" Baltic states need NATO assurances

PARIS, March 20 Thu Mar 20, 2014 4:18am EDT

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PARIS, March 20 (Reuters) - France's defence minister said he would travel to Poland and the ex-Soviet Baltic states on Friday to discuss possible measures to boost their security after Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

Speaking before EU leaders gather in Brussels for a summit set to approve tougher sanctions against Russia, Jean-Yves Le Drian reiterated statements by other European officials that there were no plans for now for any military intervention.

However he said he would discuss with NATO members Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania "how we can help their security efforts".

"That means stepping up airspace monitoring and reassuring them of NATO security guarantees because they are in a situation of fragility," he told BFM-TV.

In the past fortnight, Washington and NATO have tried to reassure members of the alliance that were once part of the Soviet bloc, such as Poland and the Baltic states.

Sending a message that NATO stands with them in any confrontation with Moscow, the United States deployed F-15 fighters to Lithuania and alliance early warning aircraft have increased patrols.

Le Drian said it was "probable" that EU leaders would later decide to cancel a EU-Russia summit scheduled for June in the city of Sochi as part of the next phase of sanctions on Moscow.

He ruled out any early decision by France on a possible suspension of a major warship contract signed with Moscow in 2011, saying such a decision would only need to be taken before the scheduled next delivery in October.

France agreed in 2011 to sell two Mistral-class helicopter carriers to Russia despite the concerns of Georgia and some NATO countries. (Reporting by Mark John and Chine Labbe; editing by Nicholas Vinocur)

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