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British queen begins "historic" visit to Baltics

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Vilnius (dpa) - Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and her consort Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, arrived in Vilnius Monday on the first-ever visit of a British monarch to the Baltic states.

"This really is a first in every sense. It's a historic occasion, and it's being seen as such in Lithuania," Britain's ambassador to Lithuania, Colin Roberts, told reporters.

"The closest thing there has ever been to a royal visit from a reigning British monarch before this was when Henry Bolingbroke (the future Henry IV of England) joined the Teutonic Knights at the siege of Vilnius in 1390," he added.

The royal visit is scheduled to last until Friday and will take in all three Baltic states. It has aroused great excitement in the three countries, where the visit is considered a compliment to them and a confirmation of their rising international status.

It is also considered indicative of Britain's desire to strengthen ties with the trio, which have been members of the EU and NATO since 2004.

"Lithuania has proved to be a very reliable ally in NATO. We think very much alike on a vast range of subjects," Roberts said.

Military cooperation is one theme which both sides are keen to highlight during the visit. In all three countries, the royal couple are scheduled to meet with Baltic soldiers who have returned from service in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans.

The visit will also focus on the Baltic states' struggle for independence in 1919 and 1991, and the role Britain played in both struggles. In Vilnius, the queen is scheduled to meet with relatives of Lithuanians killed by Soviet forces in early 1991.

In Latvia and Estonia, meanwhile, special attention will be paid to a British naval squadron which played a pivotal role in the two countries' wars of independence in 1919-20.

However, the key moment of each visit will be the "walkabout," when the queen is set to meet local people gathered in public places. Diplomats expect several thousand people to attend each event in the hope of meeting the monarch.

"This visit is a message to the whole people of Lithuania. It's about giving recognition to Lithuania as a close partner of the UK," Roberts said.

All three Baltic states were founded in 1918 and occupied by the USSR in 1940. Since they joined the EU and NATO in 2004, an estimated 150,000 Baltic citizens have travelled to to work or study.

Copyright 2006 dpa Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH

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