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Estonia parlt panel chief says boosting size of Afghanistan contingent possible


TALLINN, Jan 20, BNS - If the troop status agreement with Iraq is not signed, Estonia will increase its contribution to some other mission abroad, probably in Afghanistan, chairman of the parliamentary national defense committee Mati Raidma said on Tuesday.

A delegation from the Estonian Ministry of Defense is currently holding talks with the Iraqi government on the troop status accord that would make it possible for Estonian military to continue serving in Iraq now that the UN mandate has ended.

Defense Minister Jaak Aaviksoo said last week that the accord will be signed in the coming few weeks.

Raidma, MP from the ruling Reform Party, would not offer any guesses as to what the outcome of the negotiations would be, adding that the result will be announced after the talks have ended.

Arising from Estonia's international commitments the country must increase its input in some other mission should no new Estonian unit head to Iraq. That, of course, requires the parliament's mandate, he added.

"The Ministry of Defense, the government and the General Staff will start dealing with this," Raidma said.

Estonia has taken a commitment to keep 250 defense forces personnel on foreign missions.

While a mission in Africa is a possibility, in greatest probability it will be Afghanistan, he said. In such case the parliament must change the mandate concerning Afghanistan.

There are 140 Estonian personnel deployed in Afghanistan now.

The parliament last year extended the Afghanistan mission of the Estonian defense forces until Dec. 31, 2009 and increased the contingent's maximum size from 150 to 170 personnel. Estonia is about to send a team of air intercept controllers and a team specializing in the fight against improvised explosive devices to Afghanistan.

The previous Estonian infantry unit, the 34-strong ESTPLA-17, returned from Iraq shortly before Christmas. ESTPLA-18 is manned and ready for deployment, waiting for the outcome of the negotiations on the accord setting out the legal status of the Estonian troops.



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